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Produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature and the University of Toronto Press, this 2012 publication includes art by Paul Geraghty, Julius Csotonyl and Brenda Carter along with photos from Canadian Geographic. French and e-book editions should be available soon.
Produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature and the University of Toronto Press, this 2012 publication includes art by Paul Geraghty, Julius Csotonyl and Brenda Carter along with photos from Canadian Geographic. French and e-book editions should be available soon.

Donna Naughton on "The Natural History of Canadian Mammals"

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Donna Naughton has been fascinated by nature and natural science all her life.

She landed a job at the Canadian Museum of Natural Science almost by accident, while on a field trip tour as an undergraduate. Her book The Natural History of Canadian Mammals was published in 2012 to high praise as a new standard for this topic.

Now retired, Naughton recently realized a long-time dream by moving to an island in the Rideau River, near Kemptville, Ontario - brimming with trees, birds and animals.

Lucy Martin discussed the 10-year book project with Naughton on a Barnes Island nature walk in late May.

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Lucy Martin: “Maybe we should start with a quick definition of mammals.”

Donna Naughton: “Hair. Produce milk. Those are the two main definitions.”

Lucy Martin: “Live birth?”

Donna Naughton: “No.”

Lucy Martin: “Not so much?”

Author Donna Naughton always wanted to live where wildlife can be observed every day. Barnes Island Ontario certainly qualifies. Photo: Lucy Martin
Author Donna Naughton always wanted to live where wildlife can be observed every day. Barnes Island Ontario certainly qualifies. Photo: Lucy Martin
Donna Naughton: “Some mammals lay eggs. But – even the platypus and the echidnas feed their young milk.” 

Lucy Martin: “OK, so, hair and....”

Donna Naughtion: “Hair and milk. Not feathers, not fur-like feathers – but hair.”

Lucy Martin: “So why does it matter – to sort things that way? Is it just for our convenience?”

Note: Interview text continues below slideshow images.


Slideshow: images from the book The Natural History of Canadian Mammals courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature and University of Toronto Press. Used with permission, all rights reserved.

Donna Naughton: “We just do that. It's an innate thing that most people want to do. But when you think about it, mammals are the most-closely related to us. Of course, we're mammals. We relate to another  mammals. You know, baby animals – baby birds are ugly. So ugly they're cute. But baby mammals are cute! We do relate to that. They were our first domesticated animal. They are our primary predators. Before we had fire and weapons, they took out a lot of humans. And there's an innate fear that we just still have – and I've felt it! You encounter a polar bear in the wild, and oh my goodness! Your blood pressure goes up and your heart rate goes up and your eyes get wide and you're starting to wonder 'Where is my escape route here?' I'd better think about this!”

Lucy Martin: “All good things to keep in mind!” (both laugh)

Donna Naughton: “Exactly, yes! A good survival characteristic! And yet we all have it. I think the fact that we're mammals makes us relate to other mammals. They're an extremely important part of our civilization, of our culture – of our built-in awareness. People's interest in mammals is enhanced, I feel, by the fact that so many of them are so secretive too. You might see a muskrat or maybe a beaver at dusk. But you hear more than see coyotes. Some things you never hear, you don't see – they're out there. You know they are there. But you never see them. I think all of those things make mammals intensely interesting.”

Donna Naughton: “The last book on Canadian mammals – before this one – came out in 1974 by a previous curator of the museum – A.W.F. Banfield. I got two of those on the year I graduated from University. Because everybody I knew (laughs) knew that mammals were my thing. Even then! So it was kinda funny. And I still have them. But that book was very much out of date. And it hadn't been complete. He was working under the usual museum constraints – of not having the money to do everything he'd like to do. So it wasn't fully illustrated.”

Lucy Martin: “What makes a book about mammals out-of-date? I mean, is it new interpretations? Or – what changes?”

Donna Naughton: “Oh! So much changes! We learn more. There's more of us out there, looking. There's more people making references – writing papers. We have a better idea. We have a better idea of what's where – we don't have a full idea yet. This is a big country. There's been a new species in Canada since the book came out. There were several that came up in the ten years that I was writing. And I had to commission new paintings and draw new skulls and write new text. But we're learning more about who's who. The taxonomy improves. Species get amalgamated, or they get separated.”

Lucy Martin: “That doesn't stop.”

Donna Naughton: “That doesn't stop, it's an on-going study. But, in the meantime, we're also learning there's things in places that we hadn't looked before. We find out more about their distribution, There's also climate change – is altering species distributions – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. I wanted to make a snapshot of what we knew about Canada just at the beginning of the changes in climate change. So that we had a benchmark to go by, in future. So that when I left the museum – which I have done already – all of the experience and knowledge that I'd accumulated was written down so that the next person didn't have to do it.”

Donna Naughton: “One of my jobs in my 37 years at the museum was to answer questions from the public. So anybody who phoned or emailed with a mammal question got sent to my desk. So I had a pretty good idea of what the Canadian public wanted to know and how they would like it answered. A lot of times you get a question from a school child, who doesn't even really know how to ask the question properly. But you get a feel for what they really want to know. Because sometimes you can just say a simple one-word answer: 'yes', 'no'. But that's not the whole story for them. So that sort of flavored my approach to this book. I wanted to try to answer as many questions as I knew the answers to about all the species, so that anybody who was look for what they might have seen, or run across – or run over – could look up and get what they're looking for.”

Lucy Martin: “It's the reference desk's reference guide to everything you wanted to know about mammals!”

Donna Naughton: “Well, it's not everything. Of course I had to edit it. I couldn't possibly – it's over half a million words as it is. I could have written double that – easily – and didn't. Because most of the additional stuff is so esoteric that few of the public would be interested. And, in fact, probably a lot of what's in there already is esoteric for a lot of the public. But there's always somebody who has that specific question: 'What's the gestation period of a something or other?' 'How long before the kids come out of the den?' You know? All that kind of stuff. And also: there's the cool factor! If I'm looking through a paper – and I've read thousands of them – and something pops out and I think 'Oh my gosh, that's right! That is so logical, I never thought of that!' That's the kind of stuff that has to go in. And it may be something that nobody ever asks me. But, oh my gosh! I thought they needed to know. So I put it in!”

Donna Naughton: “It was a very major leap of faith to hand all of that over to University of Toronto Press and have them came up with a phenomenal design. They just made such a useable book out of that. It's amazing how such complex information and complex numbers of graphics and pictures, and paintings and maps all gets put together into something that people can just flip through and find everything, boy!”

Lucy Martin: “You mentioned earlier that this book was written and produced and published in Canada.”

Donna Naughton: “Oh, absolutely! Yes! And printed in Canada, too.”

Lucy Martin: “That's not easy to do anymore.”

Donna Naughton: “No, it isn't. It isn't. And University of Toronto Press they orchestrated the editing phase, the proofreading phase. They found the designer, they found the printer – a Quebec City printer. It's a gorgeous presentation, with great color, great detail – the paintings look tremendous – and they didn't have to go to Taiwan. It was really, really great.”

Lucy Martin: “Is the French version out yet? I know you were looking forward to this being published in both official languages.”

Donna Naughton: “Yes, indeed I am. It's gone through the translation phase, it's gone through the French editing phase. It's probably just finishing up the lay-out chain – because, obviously, the French is larger and it's a fairly big deal to adapt the lay-out to the French version. It should be out soon.”

Lucy Martin: “Now, it's Canadian mammals, but you map them as they naturally occur – anywhere – on the planet.”

Donna Naughton: “Exactly. Partially because of climate change. But also just because I felt quite strongly that Canadians need to be able to see their fauna in global context. Most of the mammals that occur in the northern U.S. – including Alaska and the northern mainland states – occur in Canada. So the book is usable from from Alaska through the U.S. It's getting to be a much smaller world than it ever used to be – and it never was all that big to begin with. Because everything's connected. And the mammals are the kind of the top of the line. And what happens to them indicates what's happening elsewhere, and below them, with other species, with other ecologies and other habitats.  It's all part of the big picture. And people need to be able to see the big picture.”

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