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Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Volume 4: Sea Mammals

Front cover image of Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Volume 4: Sea Mammals

Edited by Don E Wilson and Russell A Mittermeier
Illustrated by Toni Llobet
Published by Lynx Edicions (in association with Conservation International and IUCN), 2014

The first two volumes of this eight volume work have been reviewed on this website by John Burton and I agree with his general comments. It is largely unnecessary to repeat them here but my immediate impression of this comprehensive and lavishly illustrated book is to echo John’s question: who are the volumes aimed at? I can believe people may buy the volume covering the mammalian group of their particular interest but the complete set must surely be the province of institutional libraries.

John describes the series as a mammoth undertaking: ‘titanothere’ might be more appropriate! This volume alone weighs 3.5 kilograms. Copies can be bought on the internet for £160, while earlier volumes cost even more. Volume 3: Marsupials is priced at an amazing £569.

Sea Mammals abandons the taxonomic approach of other volumes for, as the editors put it, a ‘practical approach’. It combines the Pinnipedia (eared seals, earless or true seals and Walrus, the Cetacea (whales, dolphins and porpoises), and the Sirenia (manatees and Dugong). The remaining ‘sea mammals’ - Sea Otter and Polar Bear - are treated in Volume 1: Carnivores. Given the difficulty of dividing the mammals into books of roughly equal length, this is a perfectly acceptable solution.

“Over the past 30 years techniques of studying live animals in the wild, by direct observation or with remote sensing devices, have revolutionised investigations of marine mammals.”

Leaving aside consideration of weight and cost, how does Sea Mammals measure up? My second impression is of the huge improvement in our knowledge of marine mammals. When I became interested in seals and cetaceans 40 to 50 years ago, their natural history was something of a mystery. The breeding habits of seals were coming under scrutiny because they gather, often in large assemblies, on land to bear and rear their offspring. But very little was known of their habits at sea, where they spend 90 per cent of their lives. The situation was worse for cetaceans where knowledge was almost entirely based on dissections of animals stranded ashore or brought in by whalers.

Over the past 30 years techniques of studying live animals in the wild, by direct observation or with remote sensing devices, have revolutionised investigations of marine mammals. Museum cetologists used to consider that identification, especially of the smaller species, was only possible if the teeth could be examined, that is the specimen was dead. Some species were barely known. Fraser’s Dolphin (Lagenodelphis hosei) was for a long time known only from a single skeleton collected in 1895 and was not recognised as a species until 1956. It is now known to travel in groups of hundreds or thousands, but it is shy and does not approach boats!

Field identification has not reached the perfection of birdwatching, which is not surprising given the often all-too-fleeting glimpses of the upper part of a cetacean, but is now sufficiently reliable for serious recording. People studying sea mammals are now likely to work in the field rather than in museums, and this is reflected in the text of this book. There is a wealth of detail on breeding, feeding, migration and other behaviour.

“Many of the photographs are incredible. They are not merely beautiful images of a wild animal but illustrations of aspects of behaviour that, a few years ago, would not have been seen let alone captured by a camera.”

Many of the photographs are incredible. They are not merely beautiful images of a wild animal but illustrations of aspects of behaviour that, a few years ago, would not have been seen let alone captured by a camera. Notable examples are the photographs of a walrus feeding on the seabed, underwater courtship of Mediterranean Monk Seals, and five Narwhals sparring with their tusks. On the down side, the book lacks the drawings of dentition, diagrams showing diets and annual cycles that grace older books and that are useful aids to comprehension.

If you are seriously interested in sea mammals, you should consider owning this book. I suggest you drop a hint to someone who is known to give lavish gifts.

Review by Robert Burton, a founder supporter of World Land Trust, a natural history writer and lecturer with a special interest in the polar regions

Read a review of Volume 1: Carnivores »
Read a review of Volume 2: Hoofed Mammals »

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