Gehan de Silva
24 May 2017
Written for Paperback
This is an extraordinary book and is a paradigm shift from what a field guide should be. It is also likely to generate some debate on the layout. The genre police are also likely to get quite upset with this book which seems to be a handbook, field guide, a rainforest ecology book and a bedside read with various interesting titbits thrown in of ‘…did you know that….’
I am confident that this book would have served me well on my previous trips to Borneo. The plates are good with many species having geographical races and colour morphs illustrated and the text on identification is clear. But what is more interesting is that users of this book will come away with a dimension that is typically missing in other field guides; which is the wider and possibly more interesting issues on ecology, behaviour and conservation.
I was not initially comfortable with the light yellow shading on the text boxes, and the sheer density of information. But after a few sessions with the book, any discomfort with the packed layout fades away and you begin instead to take in the wealth of material. Normally, on wildlife tours, a heavy field guide may be kept in the book bag in the vehicle and some long form books on the natural history of a country will be in the luggage left behind in the hotel room. This book combines multiple books which makes it a tad heavy. As someone who carries a lot of photographic gear into the field and a bird field guide, I anticipate that birders who are similarly laden with gear will leave this one in the vehicle so that it is close at hand for consultation and carry with them the field guide to the birds of Borneo if they have to ration the books in their day pack. (The same author and artist duo have also published a field guide to the birds of Borneo
in which they began their experiment with introducing a lot of text boxes). But if mammals are your thing, I can’t imagine someone not wanting to have this in the field with them.
In addition to the illustrations by Karen Phillipps, a number of photographs are also used, many of which are from camera traps which illustrate something about the nocturnal behaviour or elusiveness of many of these mammals. The text by Quentin Phillipps is first-rate and shows not only the personal insight of someone who has been in the field but the voracious appetite he has for consuming a vast amount of scientific material and his passion for sharing it with a popular audience.
The book covers the 247 land mammals (an incredible 63 are endemic) and 30 marine mammals. But in several places there are references to scientific papers which hint that the actual number of mammal species may be much higher due to what are known as cryptic species; animals that look the same as another but are shown to be different from studying their genetic make-up. At the end is a very useful guide to 25 of Borneo’s top wildlife watching sites and throughout, the book is richly illustrated with 150 distribution maps. For a book on mammals, there is a huge wealth of material on plants which provides the ecological context for many of the mammals. The front has a visual index to the mammalian orders and the endpapers have a map of Borneo.
Many double-page layouts cover just 2-3 species, but so many illustrations and fact boxes are included, there is not much white space to suggest that the allocation of column inches per species has been generous. Many species have an entire page or even a double page allowing this to be more of a full-fledged handbook in content although in field guide shape and weight for portability. The page allocation allows many subspecies of mammals to be illustrated and their ranges to be shown in maps with text boxes discussing taxonomic issues and recent research on efforts to establish how many species are present. The confusion around Prevsot’s Squirrel with its many forms is one of many such examples which has warranted a useful double page just for this animal. Having a gifted illustrator has also helped whether it is to show a party of Sculptor Squirrels feeding together or the gliding action of the Colugo. A cute mother and baby of the Red Langur illustrates how some babies grow into the adult colour and some do not. Accompanying this is a discussion of asymmetric mimicry. Red Langurs seem to mimic the Orang Utan. With classical mimicry, the model is more abundant. In this example, the mimic is ten times more abundant. Why? I won’t spoil it by explaining it here. You turn over the page and there is the cute Western Tarsier with illustrations of pitcher plants which bring together botany and historical accounts of naturalist explorers; something which the author is very adept at doing.
The double page on the False Vampire Bat and the Hollow-faced Bat is another radical departure from the classic field guide format. Here we have a molecular phylogenetic diagram that shows these two very similar animals actually belong to different evolutionary branches that diverged 50 million years ago. The illustrations by Karen Phillipps and a full-page photo show the remarkable convergent evolution of how two animals separated 50 million years ago still came out looking so similar. But there is also the even more extraordinary fact that both evolutionary branches evolved the use of sonar independently. It is a bold step by the publisher and author to depart from the classical field guide but the results are wonderful in a book which drives home so many important messages varying from evolution and biogeography to the difficult choices faced in practical conservation. This book also reminds us that the role of the illustrator will continue to remain important in the age of digital photography. It would be so difficult to obtain quality images of a Mountain Treeshrew perched atop a pitcher plant or a cut-out showing a Woolly Bat roosting inside a pitcher plant. You will need to read the book to understand more of the relationship between these different mammals and the enigmatic pitcher plants or to read about the discovery that a particular pitcher plant species has evolved a special acoustic reflector to enable Woolly Bats to echolocate them in dense vegetation.
Even if you are not planning an immediate trip to Borneo, this is a book you can dip into, to experience some of the magic of being in a tropical rainforest. If you are going to Borneo take this in your hand luggage so that your in-flight reading is taken care of.