Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
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Donna Naughton on Canadian Mammals 

Presenter:  Donna Naughton

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

Donna Naughton's “The Natural History of Canadian Mammals” was published in 2012 to broad acclaim as an important addition to the field of natural science. As it happens, Naughton lives on Barnes Island, near Kemptville, close enough to our stomping grounds to be claimed as a “local” author.

Thirty-four members and guests turned out to hear Naughton's two-part talk at the cosy Carsonby Community Hall. Naughton began by explaining the book in general. A life-long biologist and a graduate of Carleton University, Naughton spent over 37 years with the Canadian Museum of Natural Science. She said much of the book was based on the world-class collections and resources found at the museum, as well as supplemental material and contributions from colleagues and institutions across the country.

Naughton paid tribute to a museum colleague, C. G. van Zyll de Jong, for starting the initial work on a  modern book of this scope. But circumstances were such that the project did not come to fruition during his lifetime. Naughton decided it might not happen at all unless someone else committed to taking it to completion. It  took 11 years of determined effort on her part, including 7 years of daily writing, to produce the 824 page volume and its 600 illustrations, right down to animal tracks, if any. (Some mammals leave no tracks, such as whales.)

Naughton called producing the book “the hardest thing she did” across a career that has included months of field work with no days off and moving museum collections three times.

The book is also notable for its visual content, thanks to principal artists: Paul Geraghty, Julius Csotonyi and Brenda Carter, along with skull drawings by Micheline Beaulieu-Bouchard and vole teeth by Alan McDonald. Some photos came by way of collaboration with Canadian Geographic, including the book's dramatic cover photo by Michel Duchaine and Anne-Marie Boyer. This list of credits undoubtedly leaves other names out, but you get the idea: producing a book of this scope takes a scientific and artistic village.

Other points of pride: this book is 100% Canadian. Published by the University of Toronto Press it was written, illustrated and printed within this country – something that's become quite rare. The French edition will be available this year, along with e-book versions. While the book is Canadian in focus, the entire global range of each mammal is detailed as well, since animals care not a jot for political borders and need to be understood in terms of global range. Naughton's book was intended to serve as a useful reference for all Canadians, adults and children. Copies should be found in libraries across the country and personal copies can be easily purchased at book stores or through on-line sources.

Although Naughton says a compressed field guide would be a useful extension of this larger volume, she simply lacks the stamina to attempt that at present.

Having described what went into 'the book' Naughton then presented a customized talk on mammals over time in Canada, and specifically in our own Rideau watershed.

Mammal populations here would have been largely undisturbed (that is, hunted at sustainable levels) until the arrival of the European fur trade. Mammals that were eventually “over-harvested” across Canada included: beaver, otter, wolf, wolverine, cougar, bear, elk, caribou and bison.

Naughton says by the time settlers began to farm this watershed, beavers and otters were already rare. One of the first goals for farmer would be to clear the land. Another priority would be to eliminate predators that posed threats to humans or livestock, such as wolves, coyotes, wolverines, fishers, etc. (All of which had some lesser value as fur too.)

Wolves in particular were hunted, trapped or poisoned with a goal of eradication. Without a change in attitude and public concern dating from the early 1900's, even beavers may have been eliminated from much of North America.

Naughton says current beaver distribution and numbers owe much to careful conservation and re-introduction. Today's beaver population is guesstimated to be between 6-15 million beaver. Before the fur trade there may have been 60-400 million on the continent. The range in those estimates reflects the difficulty scientists have gauging natural populations, now and then. Even so, the numbers suggest at least a ten-fold reduction in overall population.

Naughton said that deforestation by settlers caused “the biggest change in the landscape since glaciation”. Deforestation and cultivation fundamentally alter ecosystems. Surprisingly, that can be a plus for certain species, such as white tail deer, ground hogs, squirrels, and human introductions like rats and mice.

 Donna Naughton with her book

The speaker, Donna Naughton, holding a copy of her book on Canadian mammals.  

For those who might say there are “so many” of a particular animal, such that “we could never run out” Naughton says history clearly proves otherwise. Those making policy today would do well to grasp the implications of cause and effect. Proper application of historical perspective can help humans look backward – and forward – with a better idea of likely outcomes, in terms of human impact on natural science and species survival.

As you might imagine, the Q&A period that followed Naughton's talk was long, varied and enthusiastic. The audience wanted to learn more about practically everything!

We talked about porcupines and their habits: they eat bark, but they love salt. If porcupines seem fond of your cottage porch it's probably because humans stepped out and peed there – which evaporates as tasty salt! What eats porcupines, if anything? (Fishers and maybe bobcats.)  We discussed squirrels, red grey and otherwise.

Should cougars be re-established? (Right now the ones seen in Eastern Ontario have all proven to be released or escaped domesticated pets. Cougars that have been habituated to humans are more likely to pray on humans, having less fear than usual.) What about wolves and coyotes? (Discussion followed, with an interesting comment: “everything gives way to a wolf pack...it's not worth the potential harm” of taking on a wolf pack.)

Moose in this area? (Moose need lots of space and are felled by a brain worm parasite carried by white tail deer. Between habitat needs and the health threat presented by deer, if you see moose roaming around here “those are dead animals walking.”)

What trends should be expected for white tail deer population? (Those numbers have rebounded to be close to pre-settlement levels, but fluctuate in response to winter and weather conditions.) Do we still have mink in this area? (Yes, some. Naughton recounts being able to lure kits to her canoe by exploiting their natural curiosity and general indifference to humans. “They are a four-legged stomach... hungry all the time.”)

Humans may feel fishers are intimidating, but don't forget they were here first! Skunks - what eats skunks anyway?  (Great horned owls. Maybe a coyote – if it's hungry enough.)  Do skunks empty their glands when they spray? (Usually not all the way, so beware!) If fully discharged, how long does it take a skunk to 're-load'? (Only 2-3 hours.)

So many questions! (Perhaps we should all just buy the book!)  

I will close with this comment from Naughton's talk: “If we do treat our wildlife like the early Europeans did – and slaughtered all those hundreds of thousands, millions, of beavers – then we deserve what we get – and it's not going to be nice.”   

Donna talking with RTHS members after the presentation

Discussions continued after a long question period and the adjournment of the meeting, an indicator of the interest in the presentation.