Every Sunday — after I do the grocery shopping and buy veggies at the local farmer’s market — I go looking for platypus.
I live on the fringes of suburbia an hour or so north of Brisbane. A small creek runs though the nearby country town, crossing beneath the Main Street and running alongside the grocery store parking lot, eventually flowing through a small nature reserve.
After my errands are done I walk along the banks, watching the still water for ripples or the tell-tale bubbles that appear before the platypus pops to the surface to chew its meal.
I thought I knew a lot about platypuses. I’ve seen them on my grocery runs nearly every month, and I’ve even helped conservation scientists trap them for research. But after reading Jack Ashby’s new book, Platypus Matters, I’ve realized that the humble platypus is even more wonderful than I ever imagined.
Here are three new books on Australian wildlife and natural history. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
By Jack Ashby
In December 1799, an unsuspecting Englishwoman was bonked on the head by a dead platypus when the barrel of alcohol she was carrying aloft burst and spilled its contents in a “cascade of ‘pungent and foul-smelling spirits.’” The woman nearly suffocated.
And so begins Platypus Matters, a hilarious and engaging new book about platypuses and other Australian mammals. Author Jack Ashby is the assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge and a self-confessed platypus fanatic. (Who can blame him.)
Building on his considerable scientific knowledge and decades of field experience, Ashby immerses readers in all things platypus: how they bewildered European explorers, their behavior and reproductive biology, and Winston Churchill’s inexplicable obsession with obtaining a live platypus during World War II.
After a deep dive on platypus, Ashby turns to other Australian mammals like the echidna and kangaroo, walking readers through how western naturalists reckoned with these unfamiliar new species that upset their sense of taxonomic order.
And that’s where we get to the heart of Ashby’s book. From the very moment that European naturalists stepped foot on Australian soil, they’ve derided the continent’s wildlife as weird, primitive, stupid, backward, and against the natural order of things. Ashby argues that those early descriptions still shape our perception of Australian wildlife more than 200 years later, to the animals’ detriment.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of describing platypus as ‘weird,’ as well as wonderful. To me, their weirdness is what makes them wonderful. But after reading this book, I’ve realized that it’s all too easy for the platypus-besotted among us to forget that terms like ‘weird’ and ‘primitive’ have long been weaponized to undermine the value of the creatures they describe.
Ashby argues that how we talk about Australia’s animals influences how we value them, and therefore and how much we’re willing to protect them. And, in a country with the worst mammal extinction rate in the world, that matters.
Platypus Matters is a must-read for any mammal nerd or Aussie wildlife enthusiast.
Available in Australia from HarperCollins Australia, in the United States from Chicago University Press, and in the UK from HarperCollins UK.
Of Marsupials and Men
By Alistair Paton
If you finish Platypus Matters and still want more, Alistair Paton has you covered. Of Marsupials and Men (love the Steinbeck pun) chronicles the exploits of Australian first European naturalists.
Many of these men and women were amateurs, armed with little more than a shotgun, grit, and considerable curiosity for the natural world. They tramped through the wilds of Australia, “discovering” new species — new to Europeans, that is — and shipping their specimens back to mother England.
Paton works his way through 150 years of natural history, detailing not only the exploits of early naturalists but the consequences of colonization on Australian species. Soon animals were being shipped in the other direction, as acclimatization societies made a hobby out of setting European species loose in Australia, with universally disastrous consequences.
He ends in the modern era, introducing readers to characters like David Fleay, one of Australia’s first conservationists, and the brave individuals who lost their lives in the effort to produce antivenom for Australian snakes.
Fans of Australian natural history might have heard bits and pieces of these stories before, but Of Marsupials and Men pulls them all together in an engaging read.
Available in Australia from Black Inc Books.
Compact Australian Bird Guide
By Jeff Davies, Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Peter Marsack, & Kim Franklin
I love big field guides. But I do not love lugging them around in the field, or on airplanes, or on long hikes.
That’s why I’m absolutely delighted with the new Compact Australian Bird Guide. This book is a slimmed-down version of the Complete Australian Bird Guide, which was first published in 2017 and has served as my go-to guide for Australian birds ever since.
Like the United States, Australia has several competing bird guides, each with its die-hard fans. (Sibley vs Peterson, anyone?) In my opinion, the Complete Australian Bird Guide is the best of the bunch, reminiscent of Sibley in its layout, illustration quality, and species descriptions. But, tragically, it doesn’t yet have an associated app version, so your only option (until now) has been to haul the sizeable book into the field. That’s why the compact version is such a welcome addition.
Unlike the United States, Australian birdlife isn’t easily divided into east/west or north/south regions. To make the compact version, the authors included only the 700 species that are residents or regular visitors to Australia and its surrounding seas. (Not included are occasional visitors and vagrants.) To keep the size manageable, the authors also significantly reduced the species descriptions and dropped illustrations of some less common subspecies.
Pocket guides always come with trade-offs. But in this case, the authors have done a fantastic job of giving you the information you need to make confident identifications in the field in a truly pocket-sized format. Diehard birders will still want the larger guide as a desk reference, but this compact version is equally indispensable.
Available in Australia from CSIRO Publishing and in the United States from Princeton University Press in 2023.
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