Review: Miniature Lives

The Book: Miniature Lives
The Authors: Michelle Gleeson

Easy reading, a pleasing layout and a touch of humour are what make this guide to identifying Australian garden insects a treat for the budding entomologist, gardening enthusiast, or child with an interest in our backyard bugs.

Over six chapters, author Michelle Gleeson discusses insect basics, morphology and habitat, how to find insects, and the characteristics of each order of insect.

There are many fascinating facts included throughout, such as:

  • How to tell when an ant is not an ant - and is in fact an ant-mimicking spider!
  • The picky eating habits of fleas- one flea species particularly chooses the blood of echidnas to feed on.
  • The parasitic behaviour of cuckoo bees – their eggs are laid in another species’ nest, allowing the larvae to consume the resident eggs and larvae.
  • If you lined up every plant and animal species in the world, approximately one in five would be a beetle.

A useful characteristic of the guide is the inclusion of ‘Don’t Confuse’ sections. For example, do not confuse beetles with cockroaches, lice with fleas, or flies with bees. Gleeson also discusses whether certain insects are considered ‘goodies or baddies’ within our garden habitats – with the feeding behaviour of some species resulting in ruined plants and the stinging nature of others causing many humans to be wary, it is important to remember the benefits that certain species may bring to your own backyard. Did you know that the production of almost one-third of all the food that humans eat is reliant on the pollination of plants by insects, such as bees? Ants are also considered to be ‘nature’s street-sweepers’ due to their foraging behaviour, whilst the disreputable nature of cockroaches does not reflect the role that many native species play in recycling soil nutrients.

Handy photos accompany species and order descriptions, aiding any would-be insect foragers in identifying potential backyard residents. Gleeson also refers to other helpful texts on insects if further reading is required.

Additionally, the guide features fun ideas for getting out and about in the garden to discover the unique and the unusual. Gleeson suggests an ‘egg hunt’ in which one searches for butterfly eggs, generally found on the leaves that they are often seen alighting on. Another, perhaps less popular activity is observing ‘cockroach grooming’. Simply trap a cockroach, cover it in flour and place it in a large jar – despite public opinion, these insects are somewhat obsessed with personal hygiene and will use their mouth to remove all traces of flour from their body.

But perhaps what this book demonstrates more than anything is that insects play a vital role in both our gardens and nature’s ecosystems – as naturalist Densey Clyne states in the foreword: ‘Insects have always had a bad press. But directly or indirectly they have had an enormous and mostly positive influence on the way we live.’ This is something to remember when we get that ‘icky’ feeling around some of nature’s most underrated creatures.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you are a child or adult with a recently sparked interest in insects, or an amateur entomologist in search of a funny and helpful field guide.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase a copy.  

Banner image courtesy of Louise Docker, Wikimedia Commons. 

Review: Finding the Mammals of Australia

The Book: The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia
The Author: David Andrew

Aside from your friendly neighbourhood possums and the ever-present ensemble of feral animals, many of Australia’s mammal species are quite hard to come across. Indeed, some species are only encountered by chance or through technology like camera traps. This is clearly a difficult scenario for those enamoured with Australia’s amazing mammals.

Bird-watching guides are a dime a dozen these days, helping twitchers seek out particular species right across Australia. However, there has been a lack of similar guides for those hoping to seek out some of Australia’s elusive mammal species. The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia, compiled by David Andrew, goes a long way to filling that gap.

For a start, this book is brilliantly put together. In its first section, Andrew has split Australia into different locations. For each location, Andrew lists the mammal species likely to be seen, including specific sites where encounters are possible. Not every location in every state is covered, though. Instead, Andrew selects a handful of locations likely to yield the most diverse set of mammal species. Some Victorian examples include Wilsons Promontory and the Little Desert region, both of which are home to unique mammal communities.

Dispersed throughout, Andrew details particular methods and techniques for spotting particular taxa, such as those that are particularly difficult to track, like cetaceans or bats. These groupings work quite well, given the propensity for these species to travel large distances. Similar breakout boxes see Andrew offer short summaries and comments on particular conservation issues in some areas, such as the plight of the Tasmanian devil. These sections offer valuable context for the reader who may otherwise be unfamiliar with location-specific issues.

The second major section is organized by species, detailing exactly where in Australia to find each of our fantastic mammals. As an example, Andrew suggests heading to Cranbourne Botanic Gardens south-east of Melbourne to ‘easily see’ the elusive southern brown bandicoot. Elsewhere, Andrew muses that one’s only hope of seeing a long-nosed potoroo would be through joining a scientific survey team.

Quips such as these are perhaps the most welcome aspect of Mammals of Australia. Andrew’s conversational style presents equally well when only a quick check of the guide is needed, or indeed when an entire expedition is being planned. Some sections feel as though one is reading a field notebook, rather than the polished product that CSIRO Publishing and Andrew have produced.

It would be foolish to brush off Mammals of Australia as simply a mere field guide, because it is so much more. Naturalists and biologists devoted to mammal-watching have been desperate for a resource such as this, given the sheer amount of similar literature available to bird watchers. Mammals of Australia should now be a vital part of any nature-based expedition.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you’re still trying to tick an elusive mammal off your list, or you generally love seeking out Australia’s diverse mammal fauna. 

Review: Mountain Ash

THE BOOK: Mountain Ash: Fire, Logging and the Future of Victoria’s Giant Forests
EDITED BY: David Lindenmayer, David Blair, Lachlan McBurney and Sam Banks

Less than two hours’ drive from the centre of Melbourne, the towering skyscrapers of the city are replaced by giants of a different kind: the Mountain Ash. These remarkable trees are the tallest flowering plants in the world and the forests they populate are home to Victoria’s only endemic mammal, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum. Despite making up some of the most spectacular landscapes Victoria has to offer, montane ash forests are currently facing threats on two fronts: fire and logging.

The authors of Mountain Ash, professors and researchers at the Australian National University, know the montane ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria intimately. ANU research has been conducted in the region for more than 30 years; it is the longest-running environmental study in the world. The authors’ aim to distil decades of research within a 150-page book could have resulted in a dense account of their findings, but this is not the case. Instead, the authors have created a vivid and accessible narrative describing the challenges facing Victoria’s giant forests.

This publication utilises images in abundance to create a visual reference for the reader; the accompanying captions provide just as much insight as the body of the text. These images allow the reader to see for themselves the patterns of fire across the forest, the differences between old growth and post-logging regrowth, and between areas of forest burned at varying severity. These images are an invaluable tool to understanding the text, but at all times the authors communicate their subject clearly and with enthusiasm.

Beginning with an overview of the Black Saturday fires and the flora of the forest, the book goes on to examine the responses to fire of possums, gliders, birds, invertebrates and small terrestrial mammals, as well as the impacts upon large old trees and carbon stocks. Finally, recommendations are made for the forest’s future management. In succinct descriptions broken up by ‘myth-busting boxes’, diagrams and many photos, the book spells out clearly the extent of the destruction that has already occurred in our forests and how further damage can be avoided.

Uniquely placed by their ongoing research to examine the same areas of forest in detail both before and after the Black Saturday fires, the authors are able to offer a comprehensive view of the destruction caused by fire. Intriguingly, they have discovered that the cycle of logging in montane ash forests actually enables further damage by fire, in turn degrading the habitat of the Leadbeater’s Possum, for which large old hollow-bearing trees are vital habitat.

Mountain Ash is essential reading for all Victorians. It alerts the reader to the degradation of the crucial habitat of our faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum, and an iconic tree species, the Mountain Ash. The closing chapters indicate that change is possible as well as necessary to ensure that our forests are protected; reading this book is only the first step towards joining the cause.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you’ve ever felt enchanted by the forest. 

All photos taken by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky

Review: Land of Sweeping Plains

The Book: Land of Sweeping Plains
Edited By: Nicholas Williams, Adrian Marshall, John Morgan

Australia’s sweeping grasslands are perhaps one of the most overlooked native habitats in our nation’s history. Despite their humble beauty and the wealth of species reliant on them for survival, the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia continue to be underappreciated in various ways. 

The detailed and beautifully presented Land of Sweeping Plains is a step forward in raising awareness of an underappreciated environment that also happens to be Australia's most threatened ecosystem. Accompanied by stunning photography of plants, animals and landscapes, this book achieves the seemingly impossible task of comprehensively and accurately portraying the history, ecology, social context and management of temperate grasslands in one volume. Interspersed with artwork and evocative descriptions of this habitat, the text also evokes a sense of wonderment in response to the importance of this ecosystem for both the human and the non-human.

To begin with, the authors cite the strong significance of grassland environments in the livelihood and culture of Australia's indigenous people. In regards to food, this ecosystem provided indigenous groups with an abundance of underground non-grass species, such as various tubers and bulbs, as well as a wide range of herbivorous animals, such as kangaroos, that provided meat. Grasslands remain a place for traditional owners to participate in cultural practices that emerged from their reliance on this important ecosystem. Following the introduction of pastoralism by the Europeans, however, such food sources all but disappeared due to the effects of grazing livestock, in turn affecting these traditional practices. 

Despite this tragedy, it has also been said that our nation as we now know it is indebted to this grassland environment for its wide and clear spaces that first allowed European agricultural practices to thrive. However, it can also be said that these practices, as well as urbanisation, weed invasion and the potential effects of climate change, have led to the degradation and destruction of a unique Australian habitat that was once incredibly widespread. Through research, we now know that grasslands are an extremely dynamic ecosystem that harbour a wide array of unique faunal and floral species, such as fat-tailed dunnarts, brolgas, black kites, eastern grey kangaroos, tesselated geckos, tiger snakes, chocolate-lilies, nodding greenhoods and red darling peas, to name but a few. Additionally, we also know that grasslands require active management in order to enhance plant recruitment, remove introduced plant species, and to effectively control their role in productive industries. As is appropriately stated in the introduction, ‘to not act is to fail.’ 

The authors proclaim that the aim of this detailed yet accessible text is ‘to communicate to as broad an audience as possible the knowledge essential to valuing, enhancing and managing south-eastern Australia’s native grasslands.’ I believe that it does just this, whilst also instilling a more universal sense of respect and appreciation for this habitat that extends beyond the purely scientific. 

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you work in a research or management industry relating to temperate grasslands or you are simply fascinated by one of our nation’s most underrated habitats. 

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human-other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.