The last comprehensive book on the mammals of Sri Lanka was compiled eight decades ago when the island nation was known as the British colony of Ceylon (Phillips 1935). A sumptuously illustrated opus that updates and exceeds this earlier monograph was published last year with text exquisitely written by Asoka Yapa and color plates artistically painted by Gamini Ratnavira.
The contents of the book start with a foreword by Rohan Pethiyagoda, founder of the Wildlife Heritage Trust and author of several papers on Sri Lankan biodiversity.
A section on ‘Enconiums’ follows that sets out the authors’ inspiration for writing this book. They wanted to produce an updated version of Phillips’ Mammals of Ceylon that would do it justice as ‘everything that could ever be reasonably known about the country’s mammals.’
There is a brief history of mammalian evolution and a discussion on the current anthropomorphic effects on the environment. In addition, about 20 percent of this diversity is endemic to the country making it an interesting bio-geographic laboratory.
A discussion of primary literature sources of mammals from Sri Lanka is presented by Rajith Dissanayake. Citations date back to the time of Linnaeus and the type localities of the Asian elephant and the endemic red slender loris (Wilson and Reeder 2005). An influential mammal survey was conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society from 1911 to 1923 and scientific results published in their journal. This earlier work inspired the Manual of the Mammals of Ceylon by Phillips (1935). Although there have been published studies on mammal research since, no major updated synthesis has been forthcoming until Yapa’s book in 2014
The bulk of the book is devoted to the 126 species of mammals recognized from Sri Lanka, of which 29 are marine and 97 are terrestrial species.. I give Yapa credit for not skirting this evolutionary revelation in a book aimed at the “interested layperson” and including a discussion on the superorder Cetartiodactyla, although the taxonomic ranks and names are still unsettled (Spaulding et al. 2009).
Within the orders or chapters of mammals, an introduction covering evolution, taxonomy, and morphology is given followed by a general discussion of representative families. Species accounts begin with the English common name, scientific name with taxonomic authority, subspecies if recognized, Sinhalese name and Tamil name. A description follows, including measurements, mass, external features, and comparisons to similar species. In addition, there is usually mention of the etymology of the name. The remaining text may include a range of information on habitat, behavior, reproduction, diet, physiology, life history, and conservation status. There is a descriptive distribution and a shaded range of occurrence overlaying a base map (except for cetaceans) with 3 levels of elevation and 4 areas of varying amounts of precipitation. A list of references ends each chapter.
In addition to other basic biological information on the Asian elephant, Yapa intertwines the cultural, religious, and historical significance of the elephant in Sri Lanka with the biology of the beast.
Although I commend the first author for wading through the scientific literature for the most recent research, some judicious consultation would have been in order for the introductory section of the primate chapter. The conservative estimate by primarily paleontologists of the diversification of extant primates is 55.8 mya (O’Leary et al. 2013) and the liberal estimate by primarily molecular biologists is 80.8 mya (Meredith et al. 2011). Unfortunately, he uses the estimate of 185 mya based on the controversial method of panbiogeography advocated by
Heads (2010), which unnecessarily pushes back the origin of widely distributed groups to the initial breakup of the supercontinent Pangea, and a 130-million-year gap before the first appearance of a primate fossil.
.46 There are several informational sidebars scattered throughout the text, including an excerpt story on squirrels from “a forthcoming memoir on rural life in Sri Lanka” by Kamala Gunasekera.
Endemism is high for Sri Lankan shrews with 6 of the 10 species found only on the island, a testament to the biogeographic influence on the evolution of this group of mammals. Another endemic monotypic genus occurs in Sri Lanka, Solisorex pearsoni. A sidebar discusses other possibilities of new discoveries, including a “mystery” shrew that was examined and photographed before being released.
The leopard gets the longest account of any of the mammals with many superb photographs, paintings, and anecdotes of the top-level predator on the island. There are many great photos and illustrations of the surfacing and diving sequences for rorquals. Detailed insights are also given from Sri Lankan whale researchers based on studies from the oceans surrounding the island. The sperm whale gets one of the longest species accounts with 20 pages summarizing interesting aspects of their behavior, echolocation, and anatomy.
The species accounts end with a short chapter on introduced mammals. Although there are references listed at the end of each chapter, a combined bibliography of over 500 literature sources has also been compiled. Five appendices include a glossary, suggestions for the growing whale watching industry in Sri Lanka, comparative surfacing and diving sequences for the 7 larger species of whales, summary of tracks of scats of select species, and a dental formula chart for most genera of Sri Lankan mammals. The authors should be congratulated on amassing the most comprehensive volume on Sri Lankan mammals. There is a wealth of information presented in an engaging and thought provoking style. The intended audience is the “interested layperson,” so some professional biologists will certainly have alternative suggestions for information relating to their mammals of study. A few minor quibbles include no obvious description of the elevation and precipitation on the base maps for the species distributions, no subheadings within the species accounts for comparative purposes and easier reading, and the unavoidable typos. One of the more interesting and useful aspects of this book that I found was the highlighting of gaps in our scientific knowledge of mammals from Sri Lanka. Although written for amateur naturalists with an interest in wildlife, I think professional mammalogists will find this book a necessary addition to their library. It may well take another 8 decades before another significant edition is forthcoming on this unusual fauna that is begging to be studied.
The Journal of Mammology
Title:The Mammals of Sri Lanka, 2013
Authors:Yapa A, Ratnavira G Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka.
Price (hard cover): Rs. 7500