Review by Alastair Ward
Before this book arrived in my pigeon hole I wondered “how will it compare with G. K. Whitehead’s Deer of The World and Encyclopaedia of Deer?”, which is a question many deer enthusiasts will undoubtedly ask themselves, and indeed is one alluded to by the author in the first sentence of his introduction. The short answer is that the new book is more up-to-date than the former and far more focused on the biology of the extant species of deer than the latter. Little attention is given to extinct deer, mythology, iconography and history, which might partly explain why this is a physically smaller book than Whitehead’s encyclopaedia. But that is not to say that this is a slim or deficient volume; it comprehensively provides an account of every one of the (arguably) 55 species of true deer.
It uses a broad definition of “deer” in order to include the Tragulidae (chevrotains or mouse deer, ten species) and Moschidae (musk deer, seven species) as well as the Cervidae (true deer). Indeed, following a foreword by the co-chairs of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Deer Specialist Group and the author’s introduction, the book opens with a chapter entitled “Origins”. Here we are presented with a brief and appropriately cautious summary of deer evolution and taxonomy, including a simple taxonomic tree of the artiodactyla to illustrate evolutionary relationships among the families of that order. I say “cautious” because taxonomic classification is an ever-changing field. New technologies regularly reveal new insights into evolutionary relationships between species, often requiring a revision in classification; deer taxonomy is no different. The author uses the most up-to-date classification of deer and wisely, in my opinion, generally restricts himself to discourse on species, and largely avoids the hornets’ nest of sub-species (fans of phenotypic diversity of the genus Cervus, much of which has focussed on variation in the caudal patch, for example, might call it a ‘bum fight’!).
The next 12 pages briefly describe some aspects of deer biology that are most likely to be of general interest to deer enthusiasts (nearly three pages on antlers compared with one page each or less on other aspects such as teeth, senses and sexual dimorphism). Then we’re onto 13 pages on lifestyles (behaviour and ecology), 11 pages on deer and man (the nature of interactions between the two), then a short chapter (two pages) introducing the IUCN and its Red List of threatened species before a list of deer species and the series of species accounts, which together take up 216 pages. Prior to ending with a helpful glossary (the deer world is fraught with archaic terminology and woe betide you if you use the ‘wrong’ phrase in company!) and a selective list of books and online resources, the book closes with a two-page conclusion. I was encouraged to see this succinct synthesis calling the reader to arms against species loss and advocating a more respectful and less exploitative attitude towards the natural world.
Readers should not expect a comprehensive summary of scientific studies undertaken on these species, nor an academic treatise on all aspects of deer biology, but should anticipate some personal perspective, opinion and interpretation of evidence on key aspects of deer biology and their position in the world. The text is clear and easy to follow, written in a style that is accessible and engaging, with many instances of technical terms being helpfully explained in plain, simple language. It is then a book for people interested in an overview of the natural history of the diversity of species that we classify as deer.
It is richly illustrated with at least one beautiful photograph on nearly every page, a global distribution map for each species and a smattering of diagrams to aid explanations of deer anatomy and to present summary information on the conservation status of deer species. The species accounts are logically organised to present a brief summary of taxonomy, global and regional distribution, some historical context and a fact box to summarise a consistent suite of features, including phenotype, feeding, behaviour, reproduction, antlers and threats.
Do we need this book? The information contained is largely available on the internet, but the author has done an excellent job summarising, synthesising and organising an abundance of material into a single place so that the reader can easily learn about scent marking by chital or bezoar production by Pampas deer within a few satisfying page flicks rather than wrist-cramping mouse clicks.
Colleagues at the Whitehead Trust have requested that I lodge my review copy with the Whitehead collection at Durham University when I have finished reviewing it. I may do that… eventually… but the value of this book to me means that it may be some time before I have exhausted the joy that comes with finding out another new-to-me fact about this fascinating and under-appreciated taxon.
For more information on ‘A Guide To The Deer Of The World’ by Charles Smith-Jone or to purchase a copy click here.