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The Natural History of Canadian Mammals

By Donna Naughton

Review By Rosemary-Claire Collard

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 245-246

In this app-abundant world, it may not come as a surprise that there are multiple apps that act as reference guides for species identification, so that with the click of a smart mobile device, users can identify wildlife tracks and scat. While the portability and convenience of a wildlife identification app is undoubtedly appealing, is something lost if we trade in field guidebooks for mobile apps? Donna Naughton’s The Natural History of Canadian Mammals shows that indeed there is. In this meticulous 784 page book, over a decade in the making, Naughton has taken on the immense task not only of compiling an exhaustive catalogue of Canada’s 215 mammal species but also collecting award-winning Canadian Geographic photographs and hundreds of original hand drawings, as well as writing finely detailed background on each species. The result is an engaging, beautiful, useful text that while heavier (it weighs over 2.5 kg) and bulkier than a smart phone, is infinitely more fun to use, taking its reader down a rabbit hole of other-worldliness. From one page to the next Naughton’s book is guaranteed to surprise readers in a way that an app never can.

I therefore recommend leaving Naughton’s book on your bedside table so you can read the book all the way through, a little at a time, in order to encounter the multiple unexpected histories, unusual quirks, and staggering abilities of one species or another — species you might have previously considered unremarkable. Take the Star-nosed Mole, for example. From the tip of its snout sprout twenty-two short, pink, tentacles (also called nasal rays), which are covered with tens of thousands of touch-sensitive receptors that collectively make the snout the most sensitive and developed touch organ among mammals, far more sensitive than the human hand. Or consider the bloody history of the Stellar Sea Lion, found in the Pacific waters on British Columbia’s coast, whose colonies the Canadian air force used as targets for practice bombings in the 1940s.

Naughton’s book is the first comprehensive catalogue of Canadian mammals since A.W.F. Banfield (a former director and mammalogist at the Canadian Museum of Nature) produced a 1974 volume, The Mammals of Canada, which the Canadian Museum of Nature and the University of Toronto Press also published. (In an interview with Sue Carter Flinn of Quill and Quire in 2012, Naughton reported that she received two copies of Banfield’s book upon graduating from university). In the almost four decades since Banfield’s book, key changes in mammal species living in Canada, and how they are classified, have precipitated the need for an update. A notable mammal that was not yet considered a species at the time of Banfield’s publication is one of only five mammals unique to Canada: British Columbia’s own endemic Vancouver Island Marmot, the most endangered species in Canada. Incredibly social animals, a “nose-to-nose or nose-to-cheek ceremony occurs between all age classes and both genders, whenever one marmot encounters another” (39).

The Natural History of Canadian Mammals meets this need for an update and surpasses it, providing — in addition to thick species descriptions written in Naughton’s delightfully vivid and fluid style — information on almost every species’ vocalizations, a species-specific list of references for further reading, identification plates that allow readers to note relative sizes of animals, drawings of skull and track morphology, and maps of global species distribution. It collectively amounts to an abundance of information corresponding to the mammalian diversity of Canadian lands and waters. British Columbia is the sole province to host many of these species, from the successfully re-established Canadian populations of sea otters along the west coast of Vancouver Island, to the Great Basin Pocket Mouse, a “charming little rodent,” whose only Canadian population is in the southern Okanagan Valley (97).

Perhaps most valuable of all, in her introduction Naughton offers a “making of” the book, carefully explaining how she decided to organise it, namely what species to include: she selects those that either have a viable, naturally occurring wild population in Canada, or that humans have introduced to Canada and now have a self-sustaining, long-term wild population (for the sake of comparison she also includes common domesticated animals even though they do not fit either criterion). In doing so she pays admirable attention to the controversies, uncertainties, and ambiguities inherent in humans’ attempt to categorize the living world by species. What is a species? What is a mammal? These categories are fluid and dynamic. Naughton also admits that boundaries of species ranges are often “educated guesses” (xiv). While Naughton’s book is, then, written quite firmly in the tradition of natural history, which was born out of the Enlightenment and which introduced a taxonomical framework to sort and classify organisms with the deeply colonial intent of expanding, chronicling, and communicating knowledge about the natural world, her forthrightness about method and uncertainty are refreshingly humble and reflexive. The nuance and complexity that Naughton thereby achieves is another accomplishment beyond the scope of an app.

A distinct sense of fondness infuses Naughton’s book, with the reader left feeling that she has a profound and abiding admiration for the mammals that populate her pages and country. Naughton does divulge in her introduction the book’s broader aim: to generate appreciation of Canada’s mammals, a task made all the more urgent by the dramatic species depletions evident throughout the book. With this goal in mind I recommend this book to the widest audience possible — BC Studies readers and beyond — in hopes that it might stir in readers an awe for nonhuman life as deep as Naughton’s.

The Natural History of Canadian Mammals
By Donna Naughton 
Toronto: Canadian Museum of Nature and University of Toronto Press, 2012. 784 pp. Illus. $69.95 cloth.