Natural History

Family histories are always complicated. Delia (‘Mickie’) Akeley and her monkey, JT Jr, are the titular family in this intriguing book, but its story includes the grand global family of colonial museums, and the personal families of Theodore Roosevelt and the author, Iain McCalman.

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The Atlas of Australian Birds by M. Blakers, S.J.J.F. Davies, and P.N. Reilly

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May 1985, no. 70

When I first heard of an impending Atlas of Australian Birds, my expectations were, it now seems to me, naive, showing certainly no acquaintance with the ‘birds atlas projects [which] have been developed in many other countries’ (actually, the bibliography numbers attached to this direct us to just three such projects: a use of ‘many’ learned, perhaps, from such usages as ‘this wine will improve with cellaring for many years’).

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What does it mean to be human – nearly human, not-quite-human, or even inhuman? Such questions have preoccupied writers and researchers for centuries, from Charles Darwin and Mary Shelley to the uncanny valley of robotics, AI, and a trans-human future. In Wild Man from Borneo, Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffen explore this question through the ...

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

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June-July 2015, no. 372

The Western Isles arch across the north-west coast of Scotland, sheltering the mainland from the North Sea’s fury. In summer there are few places more magical than these islands, which Seton Gordon once described as standing ‘on the rim of the material earth’ looking west to the immortal realm of Tir nan Og.

On the northern islands, granite and gneiss ...

As I sit by the fire, a gale rackets at the door and horizontal sleet sheets across my windows. With monster snowfalls in the Alps, the weather is breaking records again. Each winter, the winds are stronger, rains heavier, and temperatures lower than ever before. I put more wood on the fire and consider my investment in double-glazing well-spent.

In our prot ...

Samuel Johnson had some advice for aspiring writers. ‘Read over your compositions,’ he said, ‘and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ One imagines the impact of this recommendation on an eighteenth-century student of literature, clutching a page of overblown rhetorical flourishes and faux erudition. Our crimes of vanity in writing are very different now – more likely to take the form of descriptive tours de force of the kind fostered in creative writing classes.

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Australia’s birds stand out from the global avian pack in many ways – ecologically, behaviourally, because some ancient lineages survive here, and because many species are endemic. The ancestors of more than half of the planet’s ten thousand bird species (the songbirds) evolved right here (eastern Gondwana) before spreading across the world. Indeed, Tim Low claims in this important and illuminating book that Australia’s bird fauna is at least as exceptional as our mammal fauna, which has such remarkable elements as the egg-laying monotremes (platypus, echidna) and our marvellous radiation of marsupials (kangaroos, quolls, bandicoots, possums, etc.). Can this be so? As a mammologist, my initial response was that Low’s claim is a bit rich, but, after reading this book, I take his point.

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The last photographs taken of Jean Galbraith show a wrinkled woman in her eighties, with wispy hair pulled back in a bun, wearing round tortoiseshell spectacles, thick stockings, and sensible shoes – the kind of person you might expect to see serving behind the counter of a country post office early last century, or pouring endless cups of tea at church fêtes. Yet her unprepossessing appearance belied the extraordinary woman within. For Australian nature lovers and botanists, Jean Galbraith was an icon. Over the seventy years of her writing career (her last article was published when she was eighty-nine), she turned botanical writing into an art form, branched into television and radio scriptwriting, wrote children’s books, lectured tirelessly on the beauty of Australia’s native flora, and became a fierce advocate for conservation. When she died in 1999, aged ninety-two, she had earned many awards and accolades, including the prestigious Australian Natural History Medallion.

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In July 2009 I toured the Murray-Darling Basin and northern Queensland with a group of American college professors to see firsthand how the waterways of these regions were faring. By this time, south-eastern Australia had been in drought for nearly a decade, reducing its rivers and creeks to mere trickles. Aboard the MV Kingfisher, we explored the wetlands of the Barmah Choke, the narrowest section of the River Murray, where thirsty River Red Gums stood starkly exposed along its banks. Years without flood, as Chris Hammer observed in The River: A Journey through the Murray–Darling Basin (2011), was changing the Barmah ‘from a wetland to a woodland’. But the drought did break, eventually: twelve months after my visit the river flooded and the inundation of the region’s floodplains brought relief to the many species, human and non-human, for whom the Murray is their lifeblood.

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ABR Radio National’s Robyn Williams reviews Thomas Suddendorf’s important new study of the science that separates human beings from animals.

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