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Book Review April 16, 2004
 
A Holy Book
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
"Mammals", Dorling Kindersley 2003

"Mammals", Dorling Kindersley 2003

If I have to worship something, I'll take the mammals. After all, they were the first things humans worshipped, and it seems right that after a few deluded centuries of praying to Gods who were just mean old men, we come back to the joyful polytheism of our ancestors, whose greatest wish was to be transformed into a deer, wolf or bear. The mammal cult has been making steady progress, slipping under the cultural radar. Every Gary Larson cartoon is another vote for the mammals, as is every dorm room with orca or wolf posters. There's an ideological mass reaching the critical point here, ready to force its way through the standard pieties.

But it needs some help in the print propaganda department, because it's amazingly difficult to find a good guide to the world's mammals. Instead, all you find is shelves full of books about birds. I'm not taking anything away from the birds. I'm not saying they're a bunch of showboating leftover dinosaurs with a T. Rex complex, strutting their plumes in the certainty that they can fly away if anything serious happens. Nor am I suggesting that their corny nest-building activity is a specious testimony to the middle-class nuclear family, reassuring suburbanites that the sitcom order of life is rooted in Nature.

All I'm saying is, how about a little mammal solidarity here?

It's coming, though too slowly. It's coalescing; you can see it in the way people react to news items. For example, there was a great story last week about some marine biologists in Point Reyes watching a mother Orca attack and kill a Great White Shark, then use the corpse to teach her calf to feed. Everybody I told about that story had the same reaction: "Yay! Yay for her!" That's mammal solidarity, and Mammals should serve as the new/old creed's holy scripture.

Mammals is one of a series of handbooks put together in a very efficient, readable format by the English publishers Dorling Kindersley. In less than 400 pages, you get brief, punchy descriptions and photos of over 450 species of mammal, with information on the diet, social unit, gestation period and family tree of each. Most important, you also get a report on the status of the species, from "common" to "critically endangered."

Open this book at random and you're guaranteed to find something wonderful. I happened to open it to page 181, and found a picture of what may well be the ugliest mammal extant, the Naked Mole Rat. The species description was astonishing: "With hairless, loose pinkish-grey skin and vestigial ears and minute eyes, this unusual looking, nocturnal rodent has a unique social system. It lives in colonies of 70-80, with a dominant female 'queen' that breeds and is tended by several non-workers, while the workers form head-to-tail digging chains in food-gathering galleries that radiate up to 40m (130 ft) from the central chamber."

I thought I knew mammals pretty well -- I was one of those kids who took the nature documentaries very seriously -- and I'd heard of the Mole Rat a few times, but I had no idea it lived in a queen-centered underground colony, like ants and termites do. That's the sort of delightful shock you encounter on nearly every page of this book. You come away awed by the sheer versatility of us hairy little milk-sucking adventurists.

For example, I had no idea there were so many gliding mammals. Not "flying"; bats are the only mammals who actually fly; but gliding on skin membranes through virtually all the forests of Earth, from New York to Borneo. The Malayan Flying Lemur, the best glider in Mammalia, can swoop 330 feet between trees without losing altitude. The Giant Flying Squirrel glides from Eastern Afghanistan to Borneo -- not in one glide, you understand -- by opening its blanket-like membrane, an animate flying carpet half a meter long. God, they're all so incredibly great! And there are hundreds of these gliders! Yet without a book like this we'd never know about them, because they're very quiet, and of course humans rarely look up.


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FROM THE VAULT

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