Thursday, 5 May 2016

Book Review: Phillipps' Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology

Phillipps' Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology
By Quentin Phillipps and Karen Phillipps. 372 pages. John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd: UK. Published in March 2016

 Reviewed by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

This is an extraordinary book and is a paradigm shift from what a field guide should be. It is also likely to generate some debate on the layout. The genre police are also likely to get quite upset with this book which seems to be a handbook, field guide, a rainforest ecology book and a bedside read with various interesting titbits thrown in of ‘…did you know that….’


We all know what a field guide should be. There are text accounts of species and plates with photographs of the species or illustrations usually on a white background. In the bad old days when colour printing was expensive, the colour plates were in a block of pages which required some furious thumbing to and fro to read the text and check the colour plates to figure out how you told apart the ‘Greater Forest-thing’ from the ‘Lesser Forest-thing’  for some guidance (field characters in technical parlance), or how else to figure out ‘Long-tailed Forest-skulk’ from the ’Short-tailed Forest-skulk’ because when you photographed it, it was unfortunately not sufficiently obliging as to bring its tail into view. By and large, field guides to mammals were fished out of the book bag on a ‘need to’ basis and did not result in anti-social behaviour. This field guide runs the risk that some tour participants may find themselves dipping into the field guide for its various insights into ecology or behaviour or historical titbits (e.g. how some animal or plant was collected by a zoological explorer in the 19th century) etc. to the detriment of social interaction with other tour participants.

Would it work as a field guide? I am confident that this book would have served me well on my previous trips to Borneo. The plates are good with many species having geographical races and colour morphs illustrated and the text on identification is clear. But what is more interesting is that users of this book will come away with a dimension that is typically missing in other field guides; which is the wider and possibly more interesting issues on ecology, behaviour and conservation. Many field guides attempt to address this in the front and end sections. As an author myself of photographic field guides, I have introduced text boxes to provide additional detail. What makes this book so intriguing is the degree to which it has introduced additional information. This comes at a cost. It looks busy. I tested the book on others and the initial reaction was the same with people who are used to field guides. It feels too cluttered was the initial complaint. But once the culture shock has worn off, it is not long before you wish all field guides were as informative as this. What is more, unlike a conventional field guide, this is one you will feel like leaving around to dip into. It is a field guide with a lot of extras.

The amount of detail in the book is extraordinary and the author has taken a further leap with departing from the tradition of popular field guides by providing references in the text. This is at odds with the young audience layout style which is used to cram the rainforest ecology into the field guide. All in all, a bold adventure by the author, artist and publisher. The experiment works because the type of person who buys a field guide to the mammals of Borneo is likely to be a well-read and interested adult who will have the appetite for reading this extra content.

I was not initially comfortable with the light yellow shading on the text boxes, and the sheer density of information. But after a few sessions with the book, any discomfort with the packed layout fades away and you begin instead to take in the wealth of material. Normally, on wildlife tours, a heavy field guide may be kept in the book bag in the vehicle and some long form books on the natural history of a country will be in the luggage left behind in the hotel room. This book combines multiple books which makes it a tad heavy. As someone who carries a lot of photographic gear into the field and a bird field guide, I anticipate that birders who are similarly laden with gear will leave this one in the vehicle so that it is close at hand for consultation and carry with them the field guide to the birds of Borneo if they have to ration the books in their day pack. (The same author and artist duo have also published a field guide to the birds of Borneo in which they began their experiment with introducing a lot of text boxes). But if mammals are your thing, I can’t imagine someone not wanting to have this in the field with them.

In addition to the illustrations by Karen Phillipps, a number of photographs are also used, many of which are from camera traps which illustrate something about the nocturnal behaviour or elusiveness of many of these mammals. The text by Quentin Phillipps is first-rate and shows not only the personal insight of someone who has been in the field but the voracious appetite he has for consuming  a vast amount of scientific material and his passion for sharing it with a popular audience.

The book covers the 247 land mammals (an incredible 63 are endemic) and 30 marine mammals. But in several places there are references to scientific papers which hint that the actual number of mammal species may be much higher due to what are known as cryptic species; animals that look the same as another but are shown to be different from studying their genetic make-up. At the end is a very useful guide to 25 of Borneo’s top wildlife watching sites and throughout, the book is richly illustrated with 150 distribution maps. For a book on mammals, there is a huge wealth of material on plants which provides the ecological context for many of the mammals. The front has a visual index to the mammalian orders and the endpapers have a map of Borneo.


Many double-page layouts cover just 2-3 species, indicating a generous allocation of pages. But so many illustrations and fact boxes are included, there is not much white space which may give the contrary impression that the allocation of space per species has not been generous. A number of species have an entire page or even a double page allowing this to be more of a full-fledged handbook in content although in field guide shape and weight for portability. The page allocation allows many subspecies of mammals to be illustrated and their ranges to be shown in maps with text boxes discussing taxonomic issues and recent research on efforts to establish how many species are present. The confusion around Prevsot’s Squirrel with its many forms is one of many such examples which has warranted a useful double page just for this animal. Having a gifted illustrator has also helped whether it is to show a party of Sculptor Squirrels feeding together or the gliding action of the Colugo. A cute mother and baby of the Red Langur illustrates how some babies grow into the adult colour and some do not. Accompanying this is a discussion of asymmetric mimicry. Red Langurs seem to mimic the Orang Utan. With classical mimicry, the model is more abundant. In this example, the mimic is ten times more abundant. Why? I won’t spoil it by explaining it here. You turn over the page and there is the cute Western Tarsier with illustrations of pitcher plants which bring together botany and historical accounts of naturalist explorers; something which the author is very adept at doing.

The double page on the False Vampire Bat and the Hollow-faced Bat is another radical departure from the classic field guide format. Here we have a molecular phylogenetic diagram that shows these two very similar animals actually belong to different evolutionary branches that diverged 50 million years ago. The illustrations by Karen Phillipps and a full-page photo show the remarkable convergent evolution of how two animals that separated 50 million years ago still came out looking so similar. But there is also the even more extraordinary fact that both evolutionary branches evolved the use of sonar independently. It is a bold step by the publisher and author to depart from the classical field guide but the results are wonderful in a book which drives home so many important messages varying from evolution and biogeography to the difficult choices faced in practical conservation. This book also reminds us that the role of the illustrator will continue to remain important in the age of digital photography. It would be so difficult to obtain quality images of a Mountain Treeshrew perched atop a pitcher plant or a cut-out showing a Woolly Bat roosting inside a pitcher plant.  You will need to read the book to understand more of the relationship between these different mammals and the enigmatic pitcher plants or to read about the discovery that a particular pitcher plant species has evolved a special acoustic reflector to enable Woolly Bats to echo-locate them in dense vegetation.

With most field guides, the objective is to help you put a name to a species you have seen. To understand context, you may need the equivalent of a book like John Kricher’s ‘A Neotropical Companion’ (Princeton University Press) or ‘Kenya A natural History by Stephen Spawls and Glenn Mathews (Bloomsbury). Quentin and Karen Phillipps have put together a fascinating field guide which provides the identification information plus useful context for the role of an animal in an eco system or historical or other relevance with topics varying from archaeological evidence to the Economics of Externalities.


Alfred Russell Wallace who independently arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection spent time collecting in Sarawak (a part of Malaysian Borneo) thereby adding an important historical aspect on how Borneo has influenced thinking on evolution. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and together with Madagascar is especially of interest to botanists and zoologists for the large number of species and the high rates of endemism arising from species evolving in isolation from the mainland. I have long been fascinated by Borneo and its natural history ever since I first visited the island as a backpacking birder in search of the special birds and other wildlife on Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in South-East Asia. I was back again a few years ago with my family in Mount Kinabalu listening to the evocative calls of Mountain Barbets echoing across forested valleys and holding my breath as a Yellow-throated Marten bounded past me. Even if you are not planning an immediate trip to Borneo, this is a book you can dip into, to experience some of the magic of being in a tropical rainforest. If you are going to Borneo take this in your hand luggage so that your in-flight reading is taken care of.


The images of the Colugo and Tourists in Borneo are not from the book. Images taken in Borneo by the reviewer of the book.

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