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Q&A: biologist Donna Naughton on producing a definitive guide to Canadian mammals

mammalsAt 784 pages with 600 illustrations, biologist Donna Naughton’s The Natural History of Canadian Mammals could be considered the country’s definitive guide on the subject. Jointly published by the Canadian Museum of Nature and University of Toronto Press, the book covers Canada’s 215 mammal species through photos, illustrations, maps, and detailed stories.

Quillblog spoke to Naughton, who recently retired from her position as research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature, about the 11 years she spent researching, writing, illustrating, and collecting images for the book.

Is this the first time a book this comprehensive has existed in Canada? There was a book, published in 1974, called The Mammals of Canada by A.W.F. Banfield, a former director and mammalogist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The year I graduated from university I got two copies for Christmas.

How has the field changed since 1974? We know a lot more “ there’s just been so much more work done on mammals. We know more about marine mammals, such as whales that are so difficult to keep track of. There have been species added and others moving in, probably as a consequence of global warming.

What was the most time-consuming task during the 11 years it took to produce the book? The hard slog of writing. I wrote 800 words every day for seven years. I took my laptop with me everywhere. If I went on vacation, I’d bring it with me. It’s such a relief to know I can just watch television again.

Where did the illustrations and photos come from? The colour art had largely been done in the 1970s and ’80s. At the time, C.G. van Zyll de Jong, the curator of mammals at CMN, wanted to write a book “ I think he had something smaller in mind “ and he was working with a couple of artists who produced about 80 per cent of the art. I assisted in gathering material for the artists, sending them specimens to use for colouration, and gathering images and critiquing the work.

We had an arrangement with Canadian Geographic, and they gave us access to award-winning photos from their contest. We were able to pick from some phenomenal images, such as the cover by Michel Duchaine and Anne-Marie Boyer.


Bobcat (Lynx rufus) by Julius Csotonyi (illustration: Canadian Museum of Nature)

What parts of the book are you particularly proud of? The maps are not strictly of Canada. If an animal exists around the world, the maps show that. What I was aiming for was to have Canadians appreciate our mammal fauna in a global context, which is so important these days.

I also managed to find information on almost all the species’ vocalizations. I’ve been studying mammals for almost 40 years, and you don’t have to see a mammal to know that it’s out there. There are all sorts of ways “ like bird-watchers don’t have to see the bird if they hear its song, or if you see a mammal track, you can usually tell what species it is, or if you find a kill site, or if you hear it. All of these so-called non-physical signs can tell a complete story that most people miss. I wanted to point out that are other ways to mammal watch.

How do you edit and fact check a book this size? There were two degrees of fact checking. Probably 80 per cent of entries were reviewed by experts in their area. Once it was completed, it went to UTP, which provided two professional editors. They were overseen by managing editor Anne Laughlin, who did quality control. Over 11 years of work, inconsistencies creep in. The editors were really kind to me “ Anne said only light editing was required.

What plans exist for the ebook? The first goal is to produce a searchable ebook edition. We’ve talked about regional guides being extracted “ you could pull that out fairly easily. We’ve talked about all the bats in one edition, all the carnivores in another.

Because of the book’s size “ it weighs over 2.5 kilograms “ nobody’s going to haul this thing around. I do think an ebook is the answer for a lot of people, and I want all Canadians to have access to this book, which is why the French translation has already been completed and will be published in 2013.


Woodland Caribou

Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) by Paul Geraghty (Illustration: Canadian Museum of Nature)