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Uncommon Books on Natural History

Last modified: 12 March 2012

Far from exhaustive, this is a list of some of my favorite natural history books. I selected them either because they are of superlative quality, because they cover areas of natural history that are often overlooked, or both. I emphasize lesser known works, rather than familiar classics. I hope you will get as much pleasure from them as I have. They are not broken down by subject, because I want you to browse through the list and perhaps stumble on an unexpected title that intrigues you.

The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin, by Stephen Trimble. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1989. This is, without question, the best natural history book I have ever read. It is a consummate blend of science, literary natural history, and photographic artistry.

Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life, by David W. Wolfe. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001. A very readable book about soil and its inhabitants; from microorganisms that eat rock thousands of feet below the surface; to symbiotic fungi that help plants gain moisture and nutrients from the soil; to the lowly earthworm that aerates the soil, without which most plants and we humans who depend on them could not exist.

The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things, by Hannah Holmes. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. Although I have not read this book yet, I have heard good things about it. It is on my bookshelf, in line to be read in the near future.

Natural History of Vacant Lots, by Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. As urban and suburban developments replace open spaces, vacant lots become an important refugium for plants and animals, as well as a valuable resource for connecting urban and suburban residents to nature. Save the Vacant Lots!

Animal Architecture, by Karl von Frisch. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983. This giant of the science of ethology has written an interesting and readable book about structures built by animals; everything from spider webs to caddisfly larval cases to termite nests to the sleeping platforms of chimpanzees.

The Seen and Unseen World of the Fallen Tree, by Chris Maser and James M. Trappe (technical editors). Portland, OR: Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, 1984. (General Technical Report PNW-164). When a tree falls in the forest, it isn't wasted wood. Rather, it becomes a vital source of food, cover, and shelter for myriad microorganisms, fungi, insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and future trees. This is a technical report, so the writing is formal, but the information included is fascinating. (Available as an Adobe pdf file from the Pacific Northwest Research Station, http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/publications/popularpubs.shtml)

From the Forest to the Sea: The Ecology of Wood in Streams, Rivers, Estuaries, and Oceans, by Chris Maser, Robert F. Tarrant, James M. Trappe, and Jerry F. Franklin (technical editors). Portland, OR: Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, 1988. (General Technical Report PNW-GTR-229). Fallen trees have an impact well beyond the forest. In five essays, this report covers the role of coarse woody debris in forests and tree plantations; the effect of large trees falling in the forest; large trees in rivers and streams; large trees in estuaries, the open sea, and on ocean beaches; and the implications of this information for public lands management. (Available as an Adobe pdf file from the Pacific Northwest Research Station, http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/publications/popularpubs.shtml) [Note: amazon.com lists a book by the same title, attributed to Chris Maser and James R. Sedell and published by St. Lucie Press in 1994, which may be identical to the General Technical Report. Its ISBN number is 1884015174.]

A Complete Field Guide to Nests in the United States: Including Those of Birds, Mammals, Insects, Fishes, Reptiles, and Amphibians, by Richard Headstrom. NY: Ives Washburn, 1970. Includes identification keys and descriptions of nests of a wide variety of animal species.

The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples, by Tim Flannery. NY: Grove Press, 2001. The geological, ecological, geographic, and anthropological development of North America, from the passing of the dinosaurs to the present, with speculations about its future.

Face of North America: The Natural History of a Continent, by Peter Farb. NY: Harper Collophon, 1963.

After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America, by E.C. Pielou. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. The subtitle says it all.

The World of Northern Evergreens, by E.C. Pielou. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates, 1988. The ecology of the evergreen forests of northern North America.

Pioneer Naturalists: The Discovery and Naming of North American Plants and Animals, by Howard Ensign Evans. NY: Holt, 1993. Biographical notes on the pioneering naturalists of North America, and the organisms that were named after them.

Tupai: A Field Study of Bornean Treeshrews, by Louise H. Emmons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Once thought to be very primitive primates (the order of mammals that includes humans), treeshrews are fascinating in their own right, and as a model for the possible behavior of some of the earliest eutherian (advanced) mammals. Species that are not large and charismatic can still be interesting.

American Pronghorn: Social Adaptations & the Ghosts of Predators Past, by John A. Byers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana, sometimes called pronghorn antelope) is a uniquely North American species in a uniquely North American family of mammals. Not all scientists agree with Byers's interpretation of the evolution of their behavior, but the book is worth reading for its natural history information.

Splendid Isolation: The Curious History of South American Mammals, by George Gaylord Simpson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980. Famed paleontologist Simpson writes engagingly about the evolution of South American mammals, their interactions with North American species, and the colorful scientists and naturalists who studied them.

Wandering Lands and Animals: The Story of Continental Drift and Animal Populations, by Edwin H. Colbert. NY: Dover, 1985. The effect of continental drift on the distribution of animals.

A Natural History of Domesticated Animals, by Juliet Clutton-Brock. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. It's easy to forget that our domestic animals have an evolutionary background amongst wild animals, became what they are today by selective breeding, and that their behavior is as worthy of study as that of wild species. A second edition is available.

The Collins Guide to the Rare Mammals of the World, by John A. Burton and Bruce Pearson. Lexington, MA: The Stephen Greene Press, 1987.

Rare Birds of the World, by Guy Mountfort and Norman Arlott. Lexington, MA: The Stephen Greene Press, 1988.

Dangerous Marine Animals: That Bite, Sting, Shock, or Are Non-edible, 3rd ed., by Bruce W. Halstead. Centreville, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, 1995.

Dangerous Marine Animals of the Pacific Coast, by Christina Parsons. San Luis Obispo, CA: Helm Publishing, and Monterey California: Sea Challengers, 1986.

Venomous Animals, by Edmund D. Brodie, Jr. NY: Golden Books, 1989.

Cephalopods: A World Guide, by Mark Norman. Hackenheim, Germany: Conch Books, 2000. A beautifully illustrated guide to the octopuses, argonauts, cuttlefish, squids, and nautiluses of the world, with essays on cephalopod biology and natural history.

American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits, by Alexander C. Martin, Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. NY: Dover, 1951. It can often be useful to know what plants specific animals eat, and what animals eat specific plants.

Naturalist's Color Guide, by Frank B. Smithe. NY: American Museum of Natural History, 1975. If you need to characterize and communicate precisely the colors of natural objects, this is a good, reasonably-priced reference.

The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World, by George Poinar, Jr., and Roberta Poinar. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Reconstruction of an ancient ecosystem from remains preserved in amber.

Common Fossil Plants of Western North America, 2nd ed., by William D. Tidwell. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. Dinosaurs get all the attention, but plants are the basis of virtually all terrestrial ecosystems. Fossil plants deserve more attention.

A Natural History of Western Trees, by Donald Culross Peattie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1953. So many authors write natural histories of animals, it is refreshing to find one devoted to trees. There is a companion volume on eastern North American trees.

Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs, 3rd ed., by William Trelease. NY: Dover, 1931. Many identification guides for woody plants in leaf exist. Relatively few help you identify plants once they have shed their leaves. I have found the key difficult to use. If you are interested in plants in all seasons, it wouldn't hurt to have this book. I recommend seeking out a guide specific to your region, especially one which has an easier-to-use key.

Winter Twigs: A Wintertime Key to Deciduous Trees and Shrubs of Northwestern Oregon and Western Washington, rev. ed., by Helen M. Gilkey and Patricia L. Packard. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. I find the identification key much easier to use than the one in Winter Botany (above). If you live in the area covered, this is the book to have.

Illustrated Taxonomy Manual of Weed Seeds, by R.J. Delorit. River Falls, WI: Agronomy Publications, 1970. If you dig around in the soil and have access to a dissecting microscope, this book can help you identify some of the strange and beautiful seeds you might find. [In the mid-1980s, on a mammalogy field trip to the Texas (U.S.A.) coast, we found a large, hard object washed up on the beach that looked like a hamburger on a bun . We guessed that it might be the current-borne seed of some exotic plant. Seeds can be very weird.]

A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds , 2nd ed., by Paul J. Baicich and Colin J.O. Harrison. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1997. Please don't disturb birds on their nests, but if you have an egg or nestling you need to identify, this book will be invaluable.

Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species , by Mark Elbroch with Eleanor Marks. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2001. Field guides to mammal tracks are common. A detailed field guide to bird tracks and signs is truly original.

Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It , new updated edition, by C.P. Idyll. NY: Crowell, 1976. A fascinating description of the bizarre creatures of the deep, accompanied by line drawings and photos.

What is Natural?: Coral Reef Crisis , by Jan Sapp. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Beginning in the 1960s, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish began devastating coral reefs in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Was this a human-caused ecological catastrophe, or a natural phenomenon from which the reefs would eventually recover? Was drastic action called for, or should nature be allowed to take its course? Reading like a good mystery novel, this book raises important and still timely philosophical and practical issues about how to react to apparent crises under scientific uncertainty.

Watchers at the Pond , by Franklin Russell. NY: Time, Inc., 1961. An evocative description of the life of a Canadian pond over the course of year, emphasizing the interdependence of the inhabitants through an annual cycle. Some of the information on insects is inaccurate, in particular the references to male worker bees, wasps, and ants, all of which are actually female.

Parasites and the Behavior of Animals , by Janice Moore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Some parasites are able to influence the behavior of their hosts for the benefit of the parasite. Read about it here. [By the way, it isn't always true that it is in the parasite's best interest to keep its host alive by becoming less virulent. Read about that here, too.] Somewhat technical.

Waves and Beaches , rev., upd. and enl. ed., by Willard Bascom. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1980. An outstanding, detailed but readable explanation of hows ocean waves are formed, how they act, and how they interact with shorelines.

SeaLife: A Complete Guide to the Marine Environment , ed. by Geoffrey Waller. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. This is a spectacular book for anyone interested in the ocean and ocean life. It covers both physical and biological oceanography with authoratative articles and numerous excellent line drawings, plus attractive color illustrations to help you identify marine vertebrate organisms, and of common shallow-water marine environments showing characteristic invertebrates.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments, and Seashores , by Robert J. Lillie. NY: W.W. Norton, 2005. Parks and Plates is a readable, lavishly illustrated introduction to geology, using examples from U.S. National Parks and Monuments. Useful as a way to learn about geology, as a guide to local geology for visitors to the parks, or both. The power of the book is as much in the illustrations as the text, so study them carefully.

Moon Rhythms in Nature: How Lunar Cycles Affect Living Organisms , by Klaus-Peter Endres and Wolfgang Schad. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2002. Describes in detail the many rhythms associated with the moon, from the twice daily rise and fall of the tides to to the 18.6 year nutation of the lunar nodes, the points against the stellar background where the orbital planes of the moon and sun intersect, and how these rhythms affect the behavior and physiology of living organisms. Particularly useful is the catalogue of species, with references, for which lunar rhythms have been reported.

Snakehead: A Fish out of Water, by Eric Jay Dolin. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003. An entertaining and informative look at the furor surrounding the discovery of northern snakeheads, a potentially destructive Asian fish, in a pond in Maryland, USA. It explores the way the media (and a few government officials, including a Secretary of the Interior) blew the whole affair way out of proportion.

The Raging Sea: The Powerful Accunt of the Worst Tsunami in U.S. History, by Dennis M. Powers. NY: Citadel, 2005. A tightly written, compelling account of the seismic wave that nearly destroyed Crescent City, California.

The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, by David L. Ulin. NY: Penguin, 2004. The science and pseudoscience of earthquake prediction, plus the psychology of living in “earthquake country.”

The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. NY: Perigee, 2006. “An official publication of the Cloud Appreciation Society (www.cloudappreciationsociety.org)”

The River That Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain, by William H. Calvin. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986. A well-known neuroscientist uses a raft trip through the grand canyon as a framework to discuss the evolution of the universe and of life on earth.

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. NY: Penguin, 2002. A fascinating account of “the only rock we eat” and its impact on history, from ancient China to the present.

El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker, by J. Madeleine Nash. NY: Warner Books, 2002. The story of the discovery of El Niño/La Niña and other broad-scale weather phenomena, and how they affect our lives, our world, and past civillizations.

A Shadow and a Song: The Struggle to Save an Endangered Species, by Mark Jerome Walters.Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green, 1992. Chronicles the demise of the dusky seaside sparrow in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the U.S. space program. A tale of private greed, bureacratic ineptitude, and good intentions, that ended badly.

Prairie Night: Black-Footed Ferrets and the Recovery of Endangered Species, by Brian Miller, Richard P. Reading, and Steve Forrest.. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. Chronicles the near-demise of the black-footed ferret. A tale of private greed, bureacratic ineptitude, and good intentions, that (so far) has ended better than the previous entry.

Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-feeding Creatures, by Bill Schutt. NY: Harmony, 2008. Describes the lives of blood-feeding animals, from vampire bats to leeches to “vampire finches,” in compelling narative style. I found the section on vampire bats, based on the author’s personal experience, was most interesting. The profuse footnotes, roughly one per page, were distracting and should have been incorporated into the text, eliminated, or relegated to end notes.

Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys Into the Time Before Bones, by Sue Hubbell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Essays about our cousins without backbones. I’m probably one of the few who wasn't impressed with her early book on invertebrates, Broadsides from the Other Orders, because, except for the chapters on bees, most of her information came from books, with almost no direct personal observation of the creatures about which she wrote. The essays in this collection contain a good blend of book learning and personal observation, and are engagingly written. I recommend it.

Reading the Landscape of America, revised and expanded ed., by May Theilgaard Watts. NY: McMillan, 1975. Well-written essays by a botanist and early student of scientific ecology, showing how topography and plant communities provide clues to the history of the land. In the revised edition, the author revisits many of the locations she wrote about, to see how they had changed over a period of decades. Not a “how-to” book, but instructive if you pay attention to how she reasons and investigates.

The Book of Naturalists: An Anthology of the Best Natural History, ed. by William Beebe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944. A famous tropical biologist and writer chooses some of his favorite natural history essays and studies, from prehistoric cave paintings and Aristotle through Rachel Carson.

Beyond the Stony Mountains: Nature in the American West From Lewis and Clark to Today, by Daniel B. Botkin. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. Ecologist Botkin follows the route taken by Lewis and Clark, showing how and why the landscape has changed between their time and ours.

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring with the World’s Last True Explorers, by Richard Preston. NY: Penguin, 2007. True tales of giant trees and the people who live (and sometimes die) to discover and explore them.

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