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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book review: Skulls by Simon Winchester

Most people who like natural history and the outdoor world are, in my experience, entranced by skulls. We find them beautiful (assuming the stinky parts are long gone) and they tell tales about the species and the individual. The individual tales are often tragic--a horse skull with a broken lower jaw, a coyote skull with a bullet hole, a smashed skull from a road-killed raccoon. The species tales are less freighted. Teeth and sagittal crests imply how the animal made its living and defended itself.

I lept at the chance to hear Simon Winchester discuss his new book Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection.  He gave a nice talk to a big crowd at Powell's Books here in Portland. We would, of course, sit still for anyone with a cool British accent (not to mention his previously very successful books), but he also had an app of the book up on the screen (iPad only, not iPhone). In the app, the skulls rotate--wonderful.

The hardcover is a beautiful collection of Nick Mann's photos of skulls that were prepared by a private collector, Alan Dudley. Dudley came to Winchester's attention after getting busted buying an illegal howler monkey skull. He pleaded guilty, did his service and paid his fine, and the implication is that he isn't normally one to slip up in this way. I find this pretty satisfactory--he does a great job with the skulls and shares his expertise AND he serves as a lesson to other collectors not to get carried away and promote a market for slaughtering rare animals. (Replicas of many species are readily available, by the way.) Dudley gets almost all of his skulls from zoos.

Among this book's virtues are a plethora of bird, fish and reptile skulls. Photographs of mammal skulls are widely available as they are the taxonomic touchstone for mammals. The others, not so much. Partly they are less common because (I know from trying) fish and reptile skulls can be the very devil to prepare. The skull bones are often not fused and fall into separate bits when the connective tissue is gone. I wanted to learn more about Dudley's  methods, but this isn't a how-to book. Fair enough.

Of special interest: a great assortment of hornbills, odd and fragile skulls of venomous snakes, wild pigs with their seemingly self-destructive curving tusks.  Be sure to take a look at the domestic dog skulls and consider what we have done to the sturdy wolf.

Most of the photos are by Nick Mann, who has done great work on other Workman Publishing science books as well, and most are excellent. Many of the smaller skulls are out of focus, however. Printing the images against a black background works very well for most skulls, but much detail is lost for black bird bills (such as the Northern Shoveler) and the black horns of some bovids.The photo of Holbein's large painting The Ambassadors lacks details discussed in the text. Most of these weaknesses are demerits for the printer, not the author or photographer.

The photos are interspersed with  text about skulls in art, history, human evolution, etc. These are interesting, written for a non-technical audience, but this is primarily a visual book.

You won't be able to derive the species of that squirrel skull you found in the woods from this book, but you will see an enormous variety of skulls well presented. A beautiful addition to the natural history library.

Don't even think about it.