Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Natural History of Canadian Mammals


When Donna Naughton first told her partner Diana that she intended to write a book
on Canadian mammals, Diana assumed that Donna would be writing a field guide, and need one or two years to complete it. Instead, over the course of eleven years, Donna turned out the definitive volume on Canadian mammals for this generation. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals (University of Toronto Press, 2012) has already riveted all kinds of readers. It was one of the main attractions at the Frankfurt Book Fair; at its Canadian launch on October 25, it packed the 3D Theatre of the Museum of Nature with eager readers, young and old, professional biologists and amateur enthusiasts.


A.W.F. Banfield’s 1974 volume, The Mammals of Canada , also came out of the
Canadian Museum of Nature and the University of Toronto Press. It has been a great
resource for scholars for four decades – but it was time for an update. Donna Naughton
explained three pressing reasons for this updating. The mammal species living in Canada have changed since 1974; Canadian mammals are on the brink of a dramatic possible change in climate; and the illustrations which drive The Natural History of Canadian Mammals needed to come to light.


The Vancouver Island marmot is one of five mammal species found only in Canada;
it was not officially classified as a species when Banfield went to press. While Canadian
Mammals was in preparation, the number of the rare marmots in the wild increased, from only thirty-five to between 300 and 350! Changes in species classification are not the only reason to include new species; one Pacific dolphin species has recently begun to appear in Canadian waters, as its range moves further north due to the warming of ocean waters.


Several American species of shrew can now be found in southern B.C., as their original
habitat becomes hotter and drier. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals provides
us with a vital baseline, giving a snapshot of Canadian fauna at the beginning of a shift in


The marvellous watercolour illustrations are at the heart of Canadian
Mammals; their story demonstrates how this book is a product of the whole institution of the Canadian Museum of Nature. When Museum of Nature staff members were asked whether they had any ideas for books, Donna leaped at the opportunity to publish a neglected collection of breathtaking watercolours, done by Paul Geraghty and Brenda Carter. A book format was just the thing to showcase the illustrations, and to bring the museum’s treasures to a wide public. The natural history illustrator Julius Csotonyi was brought in to provide pictures of about forty species that the two original artists had not had time to cover; he used a sophisticated digital watercolour programme, so that his work would blend in perfectly with his predecessors’. Donna declared that his picture of a wolverine was the most accurate she had ever seen.


Canadian Mammals also drew on talents from all over the Museum of Nature. The dental illustrations, which are crucial in mammal biology, were done by a staff member from the paleontology preservation lab. Micheline Beaulieu-Beauregard works in the museum’s world-class Herbarium – but stepped away from her usual plant specimens to illustrate mammal skulls, drawing between three and six diagrammes per species.


Micheline told me that her contribution to Canadian Mammals will probably be
the most tangible and lasting of all the work she has undertaken at the Canadian Museum of Nature. She and Donna Naughton think alike; Donna sees Canadian Mammals as the pinnacle of her work for the museum, and considers it in the light of a public servant’s retirement gift to the nation. It was wonderful to hear how digital technologies and people’s artistic and research talents could combine to save art from obscurity, and to save species from ignorance – and how all this could be accomplished through that most old-fashioned medium; an illustrated book.