December 29, 2016


Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of. By Martin Brown. David Fickling Books. $18.99.

     It is easy to forgive this book its misleading title once you get into it and realize that even though the title is inaccurate, the information in the book is so interesting that it doesn’t really matter. The title implies that this is a book about animals with spots, and indeed, the front cover shows a large picture of an odd-looking animal (a banded linsang, as readers will soon find out) that actually does have spots. The cover also shows a second, smaller animal that may or may not have spots – it is standing up, facing the reader, and saying “hi,” so its back, where the spots would be, is not visible. (It turns out not to have them: it is a black-footed ferret.) The point is that this seems to be a book about smaller (“lesser”) animals with spots. But in fact it is about less-spotted animals of all sizes – that is, ones much less frequently seen than those to which readers (adults as well as children) are accustomed.

     This is actually an issue in wildlife conservation, where so-called “marquee animals” such as tigers, koalas and polar bears draw tremendous attention and bring in the big bucks, while equally worthy, equally or even more endangered species fail to get the backing scientists need to help them because the animals are little known or, by human standards, unattractive. But although conservation is a kind of subtext of Lesser Spotted Animals, with Martin Brown indicating the status of each creature he portrays and discusses, the book as a whole is played as much for laughs as for information. Actually, the cover makes that clear, since the ferret is waving and saying “hi” (in a cartoon-style speech balloon) in response to the linsang (using its own speech balloon) saying, “Say hello to the nice people.”

     What Brown does here is present information on a couple of dozen animals that may be unknown because they are very rare (the Cuban solenodon, a cat-size, tree-climbing, flexible-nosed critter with venomous saliva); because their habits make them almost impossible to study (the sand cat, a bit larger than a big pet cat, which blends perfectly into its desert home and even buries its droppings in the sand); or because – well, just because (the crabeater seal, the world’s most common seal, which exists in the tens of millions in the oceans near Antarctica and eats krill, not crabs). Indeed, in a comment that is typical of Brown’s style, he says that “there are, by far, more crabeater seals on Earth than any other large wild mammal. SO THERE.” And his illustration shows the pale brown seals crammed together tightly on the page, top to bottom and side to side, with one at the bottom right using a speech balloon to ask another, “Can you move over a bit?”

     The cleverness of this book shows up throughout the pages. One animal here is the dagger-toothed flower bat, “peaceful pollinator and banana hero,” as Brown describes it – showing a small cartoon of a bat dressed as, of course, Batman, but with a banana symbol on the front of its costume (these bats are important pollinators of bananas and other fruits). The large, full-page illustration here shows four of the bats hanging upside-down, three asleep and one with eyes open, looking down at the bottom of the page with a “?” in a thought balloon – because there is some sort of very long tail down there. Turn to the next page and you find out that the appendage belongs to the long-tailed dunnart, whose tail is twice as long as its body. The dunnart is an Australian marsupial that looks like a mouse but is actually much more closely related to Tasmanian devils – it is a case of convergent evolution, although Brown does not use that term. Dunnarts are fierce little creatures that, although the size of mice, will actually eat mice and anything else smaller than or equal to themselves in size. Interestingly, the conservation status of dunnarts is uncertain: they are officially of “least concern,” because they do not seem to be endangered, but in Australia they are considered “vulnerable” because there just aren’t a lot of them. This is the sort of curious fact that makes Lesser Spotted Animals so interesting, even though most of the animals are not spotted and many are not even “lesser” – the onager is the size of a donkey, for example, and the bull-like gaur is twice as large as a cow, weighing up to 2,200 pounds and having a bellow that can be heard a mile away. (Not that the gaur is the only long-distance champ here: the zorilla, which looks and acts like a skunk but is not closely related to it – convergent evolution again – has a stink that can be smelled a mile away.) Lesser Spotted Animals could have used a better title, but it would be hard to find a better and more interesting instructive-and-amusing compilation of the stories of some amazing creatures that are scarcely “marquee” animals but that surely are as worthy of humans’ time, attention and interest as cheetahs, gorillas and the other human-designated superstars of the animal world.

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