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6th February 2004 at 00:00
Peter Cotgreave recommends reference guides for biology

DK Guide to Mammals. By Ben Morgan. DK, pound;9.99.

The Concise Animal Encyclopedia. By David Burnie. Kingfisher pound;12.99.

Collins Dictionary: Biology. By W G Hale, V A Saunders and J P Margham. HarperCollins pound;8.99.

Any attempt to teach biology has to walk a fine line between concentrating on the truly fascinating details of a tiny number of species, and giving students some grasp of the vast diversity of lives, shapes and sizes that evolution has thrown up.

Restricting itself to mammals, the DK guide does a fantastic job of both.

Double-page spreads on themes such as "brain power" and "endurance" mix fascinating facts, beautiful photos, and well chosen examples to provide an insight that is scientifically robust and entertaining. These are supported by sections organised more conventionally, which give background and visual stimulation about each evolutionary group (rodents, marsupials, and so on).

Just about anyone, whatever their age, can get something out of this book.

The Concise Animal Encyclopedia is very different. It aims for wider coverage: the whole animal kingdom, from what it calls "simple animals" (such as sponges), through molluscs and worms, to birds and mammals, and is structured entirely along taxonomic lines.

Each section takes a selection of species and gives a 100-word summary of each, which is probably too short for most of the normal uses of an encyclopedia. The selection does not represent balances in the real world; there are 40 pages of insects, of which the world has a million or more known species, but the 5,000 mammals get almost twice as many pages. And although there are small boxes about subjects such as "hibernation" and "bioluminescence," this is really a book for the student who might become a serious zoologist and wants to know the difference between a potto and a bushbaby.

However expert you are, you can never remember all the vocabulary about a subject, so a good specialist dictionary is essential. The Collins Dictionary: Biology should cover the needs of anyone interested in biology.

It includes the kind of up-to-date words and phrases that students might pick up from the media - both "stem cells" and "genetic engineering" have thorough definitions, and although "cloning" is not included, "clone" is.

The selection of people who are included is a little odd (Sydney Brenner, who won the 2002 Nobel prize is included, but Sir Paul Nurse, who won the prize in 2001, is not). A serious book for higher-level students, it may also prove invaluable for teachers, especially when they have to stray outside their area of expertise.

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