Review: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Mammals

Alright birders, let’s take a break from spring migration (if that’s even possible) and challenge your other-nature knowledge. Do you know the defining features of a mammal?

Sure, the average person could provide the correct – if not complete – answer of “they have hair.” But I know second-graders who can do that. A more knowledgeable person might add “they are warm-blooded,” or “they nurse their young with milk.”

As it happens, defining a mammal can be quite tricky, especially when one considers their sheer diversity. In short, mammals are vertebrates that

  • possess mammary glands to produce milk for their young;
  • have hair at some point in time during their development;
  • can generate their own body heat;
  • and have unique skeletal attributes (specifically in the ear and jaw) which all other vertebrates lack.

It is this range of attributes (along with a long list of complicated but less consequential features) that allows mammals to be the most diverse and developmentally advanced group of vertebrates.

All of this and much, much more can be found in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Mammals, a mammoth volume that is equal parts textbook, coffee table book, and go-to reference for everything mammal. It provides a thorough introduction in which mammalian characteristics are carefully explained and current conservation issues are addressed. Then it meticulously outlines each mammalian order, providing facts, identification features, range maps, and gorgeous photos and illustrations. (I wish I could include images to illustrate just how beautiful this book is. Alas, none are available online, and photographs will not do it justice.)

Virtually every mammal species in the world is covered in these pages, though in varying detail. (There is more info on the North American beaver than for the pencil-tailed tree mouse, for example.) If that isn’t enough for you, fear not. The book also has in-text features that highlight things such as unique species, important behaviors, current research, or a particularly spectacular series of photos.

Here’s what I thought: this book is amazing. Yes, it’s huge. As in, its 900-odd pages weigh in at 8 pounds. (I checked.) And sure, it does not provide every detail for every species. But it is, in almost every sense of the word, comprehensive. If you want to find out about mammalian evolution, it’s there. If you want to find out more about their taxonomy, it’s there. Mating habits? Check. Raising young? Check. Genetic anomalies? Conservation happenings? Weird facts? Check, check, and check. This book has a vast amount of information, and it is fascinating to page through. I recommend it for anyone who is especially interested in the Animal Kingdom, for anyone who gets inordinately distracted by nature factoids, and especially for those who love looking at great photos. An excellent book that will appeal to a wide range of ages, knowledge bases, and uses.

As an aside, here are some fun facts that I gleaned while perusing the book for review:

  • Kangaroo rats and pocket mice have fur-lined cheek pouches (to carry stuff) that they can turn inside out for cleaning.
  • Mouse deer are actually an intermediate of pigs and deer (but you’ll have to travel to an Old World region to see them).
  • Most European dormice species hibernate for seven months of the year.
  • There is such a thing as a hammer-headed fruit bat. And it uses lek mating. You should probably look it up.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Princeton University Press.

Buy The Princeton Encyclopedia of Mammals at B&N.