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.