Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

#StevesLibrary

#StevesLibrary: I, Mammal

My reading tendencies lead to me reading books on all kinds of topics, depending on what I decide to pick up off of the shelf at that moment time. Sometimes I pick a book on a topic, with which I am not all too familiar. Sometimes, I am familiar with the topic. I, Mammal is one of those books that is somewhere in between. One of the third year modules of my undergraduate in Zoology, was all about mammalogy. Therefore, I’ve got a basic understanding of everything, even if it doesn’t directly relate to my focal groups of amphibians and reptiles. The premise of the book is simple, investigating what makes mammals so different from other animal groups, and how these adaptations evolved. Drew starts things off with the premature birth of his daughter, which is the perfect gateway to the first few chapters on sex, reproduction and gonads. Some may see this personal touch, a little too personal, but I feel this helps the reader connect with Drew. Each of the chapters looks a different feature or attribute that defines us as mammals, from mammary glands to our brains, with a healthy dose of history and palaeontology thrown in for good measure. There are of course multiple comparisons with reptiles and birds, so despite the fact the book may be focussed on mammals, it does not feature them exclusively.

Before reading I, Mammal, I’ve never taken a second or more to ponder the origins of many of the features in my body (or those of other mammals) that aren’t found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The scientific journey towards the present day wasn’t an easy one, with some animals such as the platypus creating a few headaches for a number of researchers. It wasn’t until the advent of readily available and cheap molecular techniques that some of these problems were solved. I’m used to amphibian taxonomy changing all of the time, it seems that this was also the case for mammals, especially at the turn of the 21st century, with some big shake-ups taking place. One of the reasons why I think so much time and energy has been spent trying to answer the big questions regarding mammal origins and evolution, is that it ultimate helps to answer the origins of our own species. The evolution of viviparity and endothermy are two areas of research that have created some of the biggest challenges, however, it seems that these have now been settled (for now).

One thing Drew does which is rare for a popular science book (at least in my experience) is to show the gaps in our knowledge, including those questions that we can’t yet answer. It was enjoyable to read about how the different hypothesis were created, by whom, tested, and then debated. This is one of the most important parts of science but I feel that it is often overlooked.  Despite being a great read, I feel that far too much of the book was dedicated to the act of reproduction, and the organs involved. Other than that slight criticism, I, Mammal is a well researched book, with the right balance of science and humour. If you’re looking for that next zoological fix, maybe this book is the right one for you!

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