Gehan de Silva
23 Jul 2019
Written for Paperback
My overall impression is of a technically strong book packed with information. The images are on the whole sharp and well-composed. Many species have both the upperwing and underwing shown. More than 250 species of the nearly 700 species found in the region are covered in a compact, lightweight book. For butterfly enthusiasts, especially for visitors flying in for a safari who may have weight restrictions on their luggage, I see this as a good alternative to a heavier and more comprehensive field guide.
The species descriptions are structured into standard categories for Habits, Habitats, Early Stages, Variation, Similar Species and Status. The early stages are in turn broken down into egg, larva and pupa. The species accounts have a ‘calendar bar’ for the 12 months of the year indicating in which months a species is on the wing. Almost every species has at least two images, many have three. The sex is indicated with the standard male/female icons. A small map indicates the region. With the exception of the more challenging blues, I suspect most of the species a visitor or casual enthusiast is likely to see can be identified using the images and text.
I have mixed feelings about the level of detail in the species accounts. On one hand, it is amazingly detailed for a book in the compact field guide genre and one will be hard to find another butterfly book in this shape and size which caters to the need of someone who is a specialist. On the other hand, it lends the book an air of a technical or specialist work. The level of detail on egg, pupa and larva are simply too much for someone simply on a safari vacation and for anyone who is yet to become a butterfly enthusiast. I feel the level of detail may not work so well in terms of sales and recruiting people as beginners to butterfly watching. If you are reading this review, you are unlikely to be the kind of person to be put off by this and should be able to gloss over the details that do not interest you. I am guessing this book followed a more detailed field guide and came about as a mini version of a larger book rather than starting off as a first book for beginners and those travelling to South Africa for a safari.
Having written a few photographic field guides myself, I know only too well that there is no standard formula for striking a balance between popular appeal (and commercial success) and providing the level of technical detail that is useful in the field. Ultimately most publishers leave this to the author and many such series although they have a standard look and feel, vary in the level of content. My guess is that a future edition will have more commercial success if it is made simpler on the eye, in a fashion similar to another title by Struik to the Butterflies of East Africa
. Despite my comments about a simple version having a wider appeal, as someone who is already a serious convert to butterfly watching, I enjoyed the detail in the species accounts. The butterflies in a given locality are heavily influenced by the food plants used in the larval stages and I found the extra detail provided interesting. Unfortunately, to become very good with butterflies, one also has to become a good botanist to recognize plants and to know where to look for the non-adult stages.
One of the most useful features of this book is the family and subfamily level guide to eggs (pages 6-7) and larvae (pages 8-13) in the introductory section. Eggs and larvae are usually covered in more comprehensive and specialist books. The bite-sized summaries make it clear that there are surprisingly distinctive and consistent strong characters that enable eggs and larvae in most cases to be assigned to family or subfamily level. These descriptions also provide insights on wider relationships especially those arising from an arms race with predators or co-evolving for an interesting symbiotic relationship as when ants tend larvae for a sugary reward even when some butterfly larvae eat the ant larvae. The descriptions are illustrated with a representative photograph. I have not seen such a useful, concise summary in a field guide before. I did not feel this section contributes to the issue of making the book feel like it is aimed at a more specialist audience rather than beginners or people on safari. However, I did feel that the venation diagram which labels veins as 1A + 2A, for example, could have been dropped leaving only the simpler version which is shown as a right-hand half. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the more populist works available in a country like Britain, but I do believe a book that can feel ‘difficult’ or technical can be a put off for newcomers.
The introduction includes a two-page section on habitats which begins with a colour-coded map of biomes and short, illustrated descriptions of key habitats (e.g. Nama karoo, Albany thicket). This is followed by a further two pages on where to find butterflies. The scope of this section extends beyond its title and discusses levels of species diversity and ecological adaptations. The end sections are very brief with a glossary and indexes of scientific, common English and Afrikaans names.
On the whole a very useful and impressive piece of work. I can see it being a staple item in the field bag of keen naturalists.