Saturday, February 04, 2012

Two MUST-HAVE books for 2012

The Ode-watcher community has seen a veritable plethora of Odonata books arrive over the past few years. Some are regional, others are more wide-ranging. It's a completely different situation than what existed 20 years ago. Of course, "popularity" of a group of organisms is dependent on how easily they are seen, how widespread, attractive and interesting they are, and how many resources exist to identify and learn about their biology. Obviously, a group like mites will never have a huge following, no matter how interesting they are, because it takes too much equipment, preparation, and expertise to see them at all. Having a colleague at the University of Michigan (Barry M. OConnor) who is a world authority on parasitic mites, I hear all kinds of cool stories on coevolution, adaptation, and biological quirks of those tiny critters. No matter how interesting they are, there will never be a "Field Guide to the Mites" and no mite surveys of Michigan, Ohio, etc. Compare that with the watchers of the hosts of many of the mites -- birds, and you could fill a moving van with the guides, periodicals and popular books on Ornithology. Not to mention the eco-tourism that birding generates. So, there are the two extremes of groups that are both interesting with disparate types of interest.

For many years, Odonatologists "toiled" in relative obscurity. Oh, we knew that dragonflies and damselflies were really fascinating, but with few books other than Needham and Westfall and the 3 volumes of Odonata of Canada and Alaska, it appeared that identifying Odes required arcane knowledge and a fascination for wing venation. That has all changed for the better over the past 20 years. The Odonata community has grown tremendously, and as a result, we have had benefited from the publication of many nice regional guides, as well as more comprehensive volumes. It's hard to have a successful guide without an audience, so as the guides get better, the audience benefits and gets larger, and interest in the Odonata has never been larger than it is now.

With that bit of background, I am pleased to see these two new books that do justice to the comprehensive guide and the more local, regional publication.

First, let me start with Dennis Paulson's "Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East", published by Princeton University Press. I truly believe that if there is such a thing as the "must-have" book, Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is IT. Paulson has paid attention to the faults of some previous comprehensive guides, and has incorporated some very useful features and additional information that makes this book the best yet. It contains all 336 species of Odonata that have been found in eastern north America. Not just dragons or just damsels, both all Odonata. That means ONE book for everything. It has excellent full-color photographs that are large enough to see many of coloration and patterns that are important, as well as line drawings of genitalia of males and females where they are important to separate out species. I have used a lot of identification manuals, I find that the inclusion of line drawings of claspers and subgenital plates are actually more useful than most photographs. One can emphasize the important features in a drawing and it does make identification much easier. So, that is an excellent addition to this book. The maps are also well-done with range approximations that are based on data from Odonata Central and from the dot-maps project that was published by Nick Donnelly in the Bulletin of American Odonatology. I only note that the outlier dot for Arigomphus submedianus that is in Michigan was erroneously included, after I had published that it be excluded from any such maps in 2010. However, it's possible that it was too late to have it removed from the map before publication of the book.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is well organized, and I really appreciate the effort and arguments that Dennis Paulson makes for the collecting of vouchers and the value of collections. These aspects are rarely emphasized in field guides, and we cannot advance the science of the group without collections. In addition, his explanation of the methods used for preservation, study, and photography are well-done. The species accounts are well-done with reference to similar species when appropriate. The natural history summaries for genera are very good, and valuable information for any ode enthusiast. I like the presentation and the format of the book, and I really have nothing but praise for it. It IS printed on glossy paper, so be careful in the field. However, at the suggested retail price of $29.95, this book is such a bargain, that it might be good to buy a couple of them. There is also an e-book version, which I have not seen, but it would probably be very useful on a color e-book-reader in the field such as the Kindle Fire or Nook Color. I doubt that most people want to carry an Apple iPad into the field.

In short, if you are going to buy any book to identify Odonata in Michigan, the Great Lakes region, or elsewhere in eastern North America -- Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is that book. If you are looking for something in western North America, then Paulson's Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West is exactly what you need, for the same reasons as above. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson. 2011. ISBN: 9780691122830. 576 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 675 color photos. 350 line illus. 333 maps. Princeton University Press, $29.95.

Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies- Essays of a lifelong observer. Hal White, 2011. University of Delaware Press, ISBN 9781611490008. 284 pp. soft-cover, 6x9 in. $30.00.

This book is an excellent complement to the Paulson book above. Hal White has studied Odonata for at least 50 years, and this book is a wonderful read. First of all, although it is a regional guide in that he discusses species found in the Delmarva Peninsula -- that piece of land where Delaware, Maryland and Virginia join on the Atlantic Coast -- it's relevant to anyone that studies Odonata. Each species is a short essay which has nuggets of information about biology of that species. It may also include a story about a colleague, or insightful commentary about land-use, ecology, or the science of odonatology. I compare this favorably to the writings of the great Hymenopterist, Howard E. Evans, who wrote Wasp Farm, among many other titles. You can tell that like Evans, Hal White not only has a great knowledge about Odonata, but a great respect for them, and a humility that comes from someone that knows that nature always has something new to show us. Also like Evans, White's essays show that the greatest enemy of his chosen subject isn't the insect net, but the ceaseless and faceless onslaught of urbanization. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it reads like having an extended conversation with Hal over the course of a weekend, gleaning some of his knowledge and appreciating his love for a group that has engaged him for half a century. Two nets up for this one!

And other book news... The Michigan Odonata Atlas is being worked on, and my co-author is Julie Craves. I will be contacting some MOS folks for help over the next few months, as I need some geo-referencing assistance. MOA will have detailed distribution maps, detailed emergence records, material that relates specifically to the populations of all 165 species recorded for Michigan, as well as fully-cited references in the text. Sections on the history, ecology and distribution of Michigan Odonata will be illustrated with photographs, but this is not a field guide. We want this to be a useful publication for anyone working with Odonata -- ecologists, resource managers, naturalists, and enthusiasts. The Paulson book above will certainly be the field guide, and the MOA will complement it and be the comprehensive Michigan reference.

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