Favourite Animal Books: Part 3

Amongst their favourites, a few people listed zoological books or books written for a general audience but with a zoological theme. I’ve listed eleven of these here. It’s an eclectic mix but reveals perhaps the influence of the pioneers in animal behaviour and conservation. I suspect that this genre really needs a dedicated project to itself. How else can we account for the absence of Charles Darwin’s last book published in 1881,  The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (!!), or Alfred Russell Wallace’s magnificent, The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with sketches of man and nature published in 1869, or at least one of Peter Scott’s books on wildfowl, not to mention the many wonderful contemporary classics in animal behaviour and ecology which are certainly favourites of mine. Perhaps I will have a go at this later, but meantime I hope you find something diverting amongst the following. Many thanks again to all those who contributed.

Books highlighted by two respondents are marked with an asterisk, and by three or more respondents with a double asterisk. Quotations from the books are within double inverted commas, a quote from the publisher or a book review is within single inverted commas, and a comment from one of the respondents (or my own occasional remarks) is without any inverted commas.


*King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Lorenz (Methuen, 1961, translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson) ‘A zoological book for the general audience which has changed the way many people see animals. A few of the findings such as the phenomenon of imprinting have found their way into common knowledge since its publication.’

Man Meets Dog, by Konrad Lorenz (Methuen, 1954, 1st English edition) ‘Invaluable as a guide to sharing your life with your very own devoted friend… there is much that was unknown to me such as the fact that a dog’s eyesight is poor and that dogs are capable of lying, astonishing.’

Curious Naturalists, by Niko Tinbergen (Country Life, 1958) ‘Exposing us up to both the world of nature and the methodology of the naturalist, Tinbergen reveals something that the modern day world distracts us from – patient observation and the results that it yields.’

The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures That Have Ever Lived, by Colin Tudge (Oxford University Press, 2000). ‘It contains all the knowledge that I hoped to acquire from a degree in Zoology – and didn’t.’  John Maynard Smith.

Island survivors: the ecology of the Soay sheep of St Kilda, by P.A. Jewell, C. Milner and J.M. Boyd. (Athlone Press, 1974) ‘An impressive and highly successful record of over 10 years of research on a feral population of about 1400 sheep on Hirta, the main island of the St Kilda group. This book is packed with fascinating and detailed information about the Soay sheep.’

Mountain Sheep: A study in Behaviour and Evolution, by Valerius Geist (University of Chicago Press, 1971) Why does a highly successful ungulate, living on the fringes of the great ice sheets, waste resources in growing the magnificently decorative horns that grace the Mountain Sheep? Valerius Geist answers this question and many more, so amply and eloquently, ‘that his book will be a model for many years. It is rare indeed that meticulous field observation, stimulating ideas of considerable generality and good writing are combined to give a book of high scientific value and readability that is also informative and exciting.’

Struggle for Survival: Elephant Problem, by John Hanks (Littlehampton, 1979) ‘Anyone wanting a balanced account of the elephant problem and the controversies it has engendered could not do better than read this authoritative, well-written and entertaining text’ notes Keith Eltringham in the journal, Oryx. One respondent observes: The author was very brave to write a book about the culling of so many elephants – when you consider at the time the ‘career-ending’ move this could have been.’

Elephant Destiny, by Martin Meredith (HarperCollins, 2004) A concise, richly illustrated biography of the African elephant. Martin Meredith lays out the history of this majestic animal from the Egyptian pharaohs’ first ivory expeditions 2500 years ago to today, and explores the elephant’s role in literature and popular culture. He shares recent extraordinary discoveries about the elephant’s ability to communicate, its sophisticated family and community structure, and the ways–rare in the animal world–in which elephants show compassion and loyalty to each other.’

Evolution in Action: Natural History through Spectacular Skeletons, by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu (Thames and Hudson, 2007) This is a lovely book of skeletons; it brings them to life in a way that you wouldn’t have thought possible with a book. ‘Beautiful and instructive… an eloquent and convincing account of the theory of evolution through images alone’.

The Extended Phenotype, by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 1982) “An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.” Thus a gene may effect an organism’s environment through the organism’s behaviour, as with caddis houses and beaver dams. A gene of a parasite may even affect the behaviour of another species – the host organism – to improve its (the gene’s) survival.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent… It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to speak out— to many thousands of people…” This book is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement.

* * * * *

The next posting in the series will list Children’s animal books.

About Martyn Murray

I fell in love with nature when I turned twenty-one camping under Acacias in East Africa, surrounded by giraffe and zebra with my nape hair raised by the distant roaring of lions. I went on to work for fifty years in Africa, Europe and Asia as an ecologist and conservation consultant. A few years ago I moved to the Isle of Lismore to pursue my passion for reconnecting people with the natural world. My first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. My second, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work – his theory of evolution by natural selection – in a text that is 15% the length of the original. The third, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat and on how to keep personal freedom alive. I am currently working on a fourth which is about the global collapse of the natural world. Its working title is, In This Together. It challenges us all over our current connections with nature. More details are on my website, www.martynmurray.com.
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