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How poignant it is to look at some of Gould's beautiful images of our animals and know that some are no longer with us, and some are fighting for their lives?
In this book, author Fred Ford compares Gould's world, and the world that the animals live in at that time, with the world today. 'John Gould's Extinct and Endangered Mammals of Australia' includes 46 Australian mammal species that, today, are threatened or extinct and that were portrayed in the lavish colour plates in John Gould's 1863 publication, 'The Mammals of Australia'.
Each animal 'opener spread' begins with a Gould plate accompanied by 'At a Glance'-a very short summary; the conservation status according to the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) list, the species names, a map of its former and current distribution and sites of reintroduction; and a timeline of the species history since European colonisation.
Accompanying the pictures are accounts of the animals as they lived in the relatively untouched Australia that John Gould knew, and evidence of the attitudes of European settlers towards the native fauna. The author provides the reader with fascinating, and often poignant, material and stories of what would be considered today as shameful behaviour and attitudes towards Australia's native fauna. In this book are not only sobering stories of the fate of these animals after Gould's time, but also success stories of reintroducing species to places, ridding areas of introduced pests, and preserving habitat.
John Gould's Extinct and Endangered Mammals of Australia by CSIRO zoologist Fred Ford is an entirely different type of publication and represents a great idea brought to fruition. In this case the paintings are fairly well known - Gould's 1863 three-volume Mammals of Australia has been reprinted more than once in a form accessible to most of us, and even I have a one-volume "selection of the three volumes" facsimile from my student days. The other difference from the previous title is that there is a great deal of very well researched text here too. Ford takes 47 mammal species selected from Mammals of Australia as having since declined dramatically as a result of human activities - too many to the dreadful finality of extinction, others surviving but under the threat of extirpation in the not too distant future. In this sense it makes for grim reading in parts and I felt angry and depressed at times, as should any thinking being. Nonetheless it's a riveting book and I greatly appreciate and admire the thought that's gone into its planning. (A previous volume with similar title and aims on Gould's endangered birds fell well short of the achievements of this one.)
The introductory pages on Gould himself and his closest associates, notably his remarkably talented and devoted wife, Elizabeth, and his extraordinarily skilful collector, John Gilbert, are eye-openers. I considered myself reasonably well informed on this towering figure of 19th century Australian zoology but I realised as I read that much of my understanding was based on his bird work; his mammal contributions need to be considered differently. This is no hagiography, and Ford puts Gould's work on mammal taxonomy into the context of those who came before and after him; he puts his finger firmly on the nub of the matter when he says that where Gould "far exceeded the achievement of Gray, Waterhouse and Thomas was in bringing his biological subjects to life". This, Ford suggests, was due to Gould's need to come here to really understand Australia's fauna, rather than relying on museum skins in England. Moreover Gould was apparently ahead of his time in his repeated warnings of the fate of many species if attitudes and legislation didn't change.
The main body of the book deals with the species individually, sometimes after an introduction to the group. A two-page spread reproduces the painting, a pertinently pithy quote from Gould, a brief summary of its current state - or fate, a distribution map, past and present and, as a very nice touch, a timeline of key events in its history in European times. There follows anything from one to 10 pages (in the case of the Thylacine) on the species itself, with particular emphasis on its appearance in the pages of European history, ending, where possible, with recent conservation initiatives. In addition to the Gould plates themselves the pages are lavishly and often intriguingly illustrated with relevant landscape paintings and habitat photos, illustrations by other artists, historic sketches and newspaper clippings. My only minor quibble is that we have to leave the page to go to the end of the book for information on these often fascinating contributions - it seems unnecessary but is in truth a small thing.
This book is a celebration and memorial both, and it fills both roles intelligently, originally and beautifully. Well done National Library of Australia
Most of us know of Gould's works on Australian birds but for some reason his equally impressive three-volume opus on the mammals of this continent is not as famous. He arrived in 1839 to find himself "surrounded by objects as strange as if I had been transported to another planet". He intended to write about our birds but when he realised how interesting the indigenous mammals were he decided to create books about them. The books were not published until 1863 and failed to capture the imagination and reap the financial rewards, the way his bird books did. Yet in his pages he made some interesting and important observations. He could see native creatures were threatened by changes in their habitat thanks mostly to the encroachment of European civilisation and introduced species. This book complete with reproductions of Gould's original illustrations puts the naturalist's work in its context and highlights how observant he was. He saw the demise of the thylacine and the danger to koalas more than 150 years before they were listed as endangered.
John Gould: an enduring witness to Australia's lost mammals
The 19th century ornithologist had a surprisingly progressive view of Australian animals, championing the fast-disappearing thylacine and broad-faced potoroo, even if he also knew how to cook a wombat
That old cliche "you don't know what you've got till it's gone" has a truly hollow ring when applied to Australian's awareness of its lost mammals.
Most Australians are barely aware of the creatures that still inhabit their island and couldn't tell the difference between a bettong (a shin-high kangaroo) and a wambenger (a small marsupial carnivore) if they got kicked in the eyes by one. A bettong that is. A wambenger would more likely target the jugular with its sharp little teeth.
It wasn't always so. Early European settlers were keenly attuned to the foibles of bettongs. Native mammals were part of their daily lives, raiding gardens, stealing poultry, eating pasture, a source of fur, and more often than not of free meat, too. And it was into this world of abundant native mammals that John Gould arrived.
One of the 19th century's most talented ornithologists, Gould was lured to Australia's shores by its birdlife with a view to producing a series of lavishly illustrated works.
But he also amassed a large collection of mammals from visits between 1838 and 1840 to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), South Australia and New South Wales. His collector, John Gilbert, visited the colonies of Swan River in Western Australia, Queensland's Moreton Bay and Port Essington in the Northern Territory.
Both men commented on the variety and abundance of Australian mammals and Gould developed a clear fondness for many of the animals he encountered, particularly the 'roos. He named almost half the known species of kangaroo but it was the nobility and beauty of the red kangaroo that impressed him most. He considered it the emblem of Australia, as it still is today.
Modern accounts still refer to Gould for descriptions of many mammal species and their natural history. But Gould was a man of his time who thought nothing of shooting species on sight and even recounted the difficulties of skinning a particular specimen.
He was also partial to the culinary experiences native animals offered, finding, for example, that wombat flesh was "tough, with a musky flavour, and not altogether agreeable".
Aside from these particular Victorian attitudes, Gould valued Australian mammals in ways the general population of the time did not. He was scathing about the lack of hunting regulations and other laws protecting them. He correctly drew direct parallels between the demonisation and persecution of wolves in other parts of the world and the inevitable demise of the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine). Even though the last known thylacine died in Hobart zoo in 1936, the images from Gould's book, The Mammals of Australia, completed in 1863, still provide one of the most reproduced records of the species.
This is the sad legacy of Gould's work. He documented a significant proportion of the mammals of southern Australia, and it is in southern Australia that extinction and decline hit the hardest. For the thylacine, a wealth of information was recorded before it disappeared; they were kept in zoos and encounters in the wild were often written up in newspapers. The Tasmanian government even debated its right to exist.
In contrast, no one documented the disappearance of the broad-faced potoroo, and only a handful of them were recorded prior to its extinction. Gould's accounts provide the best available firsthand natural history information for such species.
Gould's work provides an illustrated inventory of mammal fauna with additional information wherever it was known. When I was asked to produce a book on the endangered and extinct species from The Mammals of Australia, Gould's work provided the baseline for a series of far richer stories than he was in a position to describe.
A few species like the white-footed rabbit rat were probably close to extinction by 1863. Others, like the koala, persisted despite Gould's pessimism over their chances of survival in the face of the fur trade and other hunting. Then there are the hopeful stories of species rediscovered from extinction, like the bridled nailtail wallaby and the New Holland mouse. The latter was not seen after the 1840s until it was found on the outskirts of Sydney in 1967.
"Wretched marauder", "vermin", "pests", "one of the most stupid animals", "unsatiable desire of shedding blood". These were some of the common attitudes of the early settlers. However, calls for protection and conservation of Australian wildlife were voiced from the early 1900s, a result of the country itself changing dramatically - from Gould's "vast grassy plains", "luxuriant brushes" and "rich lands which surround nearly the whole of the sterile interior" to worn-out sheep paddocks overrun with rabbits, hares and foxes, and forests prowled by foxes, cats, pigs and deer.
It happened fast. The period from the 1870s to the early 1920s saw this wholesale conversion of Australian land, and plant and animal communities. Along with this, attitudes to native fauna also changed. The prime catalyst was the rabbit.
Settlers who had previously considered species like the eastern quoll as vermin rapidly came to view them as allies in a losing battle against rabbits. The combination of rabbits, foxes, land-clearing and other processes drove catastrophic decline of small and medium mammals across southern Australia, particularly bandicoots, bettongs and rodents. It is the astonishing loss of these small species that would probably surprise Gould the most.
Ultimately though, it's not the stories I could find about thylacines and koalas that tell the tales of Gould's mammals. It's the pages where there is nothing to show but a painting from his publication and a few lines explaining that the species was never seen again. Now these animals have gone, even the best informed among us have no idea what we had.
This is an entirely different type of publication and a great idea. Gould's 1863 three-volume Mammals of Australia has been reprinted more than once - even I have a one-volume "selection'' from my student days. But there is a great deal of very well researched text here too. CSIRO zoologist Ford takes 47 mammal species selected from Mammals of Australia as having since declined dramatically as a result of human activities. In this sense it makes for grim reading in parts and I felt angry and depressed at times. Nonetheless I greatly appreciate and admire the thought that's gone into it.
Stewed bandicoot, anyone? Or fancy a koala fur coat? This book traces the fate of animals catalogued by famed naturalist John Gould. Many of the creatures he recorded are no longer, largely due to the encroachment of humans and their accompanying pests. The illustrations are glorious and the photographs are fascinating and sometimes horrifying (a truck almost collapsing under its load of koala furs with a hunting dog sitting on top).
Verdict: a collector's item
I have never forgotten the thrill of finding the nest of a lesser stick-nest rat inside a tree stump in the Eastern Goldfields. A thrill, however, tinged with sadness in knowing that the owner had been extinct for several decades. This book examines the fate of 46 of the mammals (including the lesser stick-nest rat) recorded in Gould's monumental work, The Mammals of Australia. The beautiful illustrations, reproduced from Gould's plates, are interspersed with photographs and newspaper accounts.
Australia’s extinction record for mammals post European settlement makes for gloomy reading: as many mammal species as had disappeared from the rest of the World between 1600 and 2000! Fred Ford’s excellent work now suggests some 27 mammal species have been lost from Australia in the last 200 years, a significant rise over the 18 I described in 1992 in an article on biodiversity loss (Canadian Biodiversity 2: 13-15)!
The reasons for such extinctions are many and have been well publicised: rapid habitat change and loss, exotic competitors and especially predators, disease and even hunting, but it is the rapidity of these extinctions that has most intrigued scholars.
John Gould was one of England’s greatest naturalists, wildlife collectors and artists of the 19th Century. His epic work, The Mammals of Australia is regarded as a masterpiece in its description (both verbal and pictorial) of Australia’s mammals. The various folios depicting categories of mammals were published earlier, but the complete (and revised) set of volumes were not produced until 1863. Henry Richter produced beautifully detailed lithographic plates of the mammals from Gould’s own sketches, just as Gould’s wife Elisabeth did for his earlier volumes on Australia’s birds. While sales of his mammal book never produced the windfall sales of the bird series, the individual plates of original volumes have been sold separately as valuable art works and many have these superb artworks adorning their homes’ walls!
Fred Ford and the National Library of Australia are to be congratulated for this excellent book which revisits Gould’s Mammals of Australia. The author has focussed on a number of now extinct or endangered species that appeared in Gould’s original tome. “The book provides a summary of what Gould knew about a species and where he gained his knowledge, and then stories of those species since 1863. For some species, the accounts are very short; for others, a sorry tale of decline and extinction; and for still others, resurrection’ (p. 22).
Some introductory chapters preface the work: a brief description of Gould’s visits to Australia; his dependence on (and acknowledgement of) his artists – Richter and Gould’s wife Elisabeth and his collectors, especially John Gilbert; and his accurate prediction about the likely loss of species as settlement spread throughout the land. He despaired at the colonists’ lack of appreciation of their native fauna:
“… they would long ere this have made laws for the preservation of their highly singular and in many instances noble, indigenous animals; and doubly short-sighted are they for wishing to introduce into Australia the productions of other climes.” (p. 12).
For each species of species or species group we are provided with Gould’s (and Richter’s) painting, the national conservation status, past (last 200 years) and present distribution (and sites of any reintroductions). A time-line with important notes is also provided. For example, the timeline for the Numbat lists when
An extensive account is devoted to the Koala, Phascolarctos cinereus. This chapter correctly notes that in 2012 the Commonwealth classified the species as Vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, but did not list the Koala as a species of conservation concern in Victoria and SA. Ford’s justification for including a “vulnerable” species in a book on extinct and endangered species is perhaps found in this comprehensive treatment on the Koala: he believes the species in Victoria is so genetically limited that it might pose a future problem.
“… Koala was only nationally listed as a threatened species in 2012 as a result of ongoing and increasingly rapid population declines. Gould would have been surprised that it took so long for the Koala to be recognised as a species in real danger of extinction…” (p. vi).
In Victoria we have seen management plans address over-abundance of the species and denudation of food trees. The whole debate is thus an interesting one, with serious population declines in the northern states and high density populations with a limited gene pool in Victoria.
This is an excellent book that I thoroughly recommend to naturalists, mammalogists, those interested in biodiversity conservation, and also students of Australian history. It is well produced, replete with glorious illustrations and presents an update on how many of Gould’s mammals are now faring.