This book is indeed as its title suggests: a small, handy guide to sharks around the world in a typical nature-guidebook format. Sharks are grouped by orders or families that have similarities, then by species within each order or family. Each group is preceded by a description that includes an overview paragraph, identification details, biology, and status. A lot of interesting information is provided here. For example, did you know that female zebra sharks can exhibit parthenogenesis (p. 128)? Or that sawshark babies are born live, but their fully formed, sharp teeth lie flat against their rostrum until after birth (p. 84)?
Following each group description, each species is described in more detail opposite a color plate, which includes an illustration of the species. While many nature guides have turned to using photographs as identifying images, this is just not practical with sharks. The pictures are detailed and appear to be accurate (based on the descriptions). Each page has an image of a human next to an image of one of the species depicted on that page, to give a better idea of the actual size of that group of sharks – very effective!
I think the best part about this guide is the informational section that precedes the section of species descriptions. Basic shark biology is described first, from a discussion of ectothermic and endothermic sharks to a cutaway illustration of shark anatomy to a description of various types of reproduction. Did you know that some mackerel sharks, such as the great white shark, are actually endothermic? Or that some sharks have a placental connection with their young in utero? This is my favorite part of the book because I can include some interesting facts about sharks in my biology class during discussions of various survival strategies.
This informational section also includes “How to Use This Book,” which begins with the slightly tongue-in-cheek “If you have not studied sharks before, you might want to check that you are definitely looking at a shark” (p. 10). It turns out that many sharks, such as angelsharks and wobbegongs, do not resemble the typical shark, and there are some shark-like animals, such as guitarfish and sawfish, that are rays and not sharks at all. (Sawfish and sawsharks are not the same animal, despite their names and their fearsome saws). So the authors tell how to use the illustrated dichotomous key to first make sure you are looking at a shark, and then proceed to the order or family as needed. This is likely most useful if you are looking at a captive shark. It is not meant to be an underwater identification guide for a recreational scuba diver, as it includes amazingly detailed names and descriptions of shark anatomy.
But there's more! Another favorite part of the book for me is the five pages of shark tooth illustrations. While most readers won't see a shark in the wild, many will find fossilized shark teeth. This guide depicts a wide variety of the more commonly found teeth of extant sharks today, which closely resemble their fossilized ancestors. Since teeth can vary depending on location within a shark's mouth, or with the age of the shark, more than one tooth is usually shown, along with a size bar in millimeters.
There is a rather sobering section on identification of shark fins – not as you might see them swimming, but rather as a harvested product. The most commonly harvested fins are illustrated and described as one might find them in the international fin trade. No mention of the ethics of shark finning are provided, but that is likely beyond the purview of this guide.
Beyond that, however, it is worth noting that an incredible amount of information is packed into this fairly compact book. A page near the back discusses identification and measurement-taking in the wild (not that this is recommended for the layman). There are descriptions of the various parts of the ocean, such as the neritic zone and the sublittoral zone, because sharks are often specific to these locations. There is an excellent glossary, though the print is tiny. There is a species checklist, much as one might find in a birding guide, as well as lists of scientific and conservation organizations. This guide was first published in the United Kingdom, so it has more of an international focus than a specifically U.S. focus.
It's a very well organized guide, with interesting and informative details, for which I would give it four frogs, but it's not terrifically useful to a typical biology classroom teacher – unless you are teaching marine biology, or just have a passion for sharks.
ELIZABETH COWLES teaches introductory biology, biochemistry, and entomology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has taught at the undergraduate and graduate college levels for over 20 years. Her interests include insect toxicology, protein characterization, and astrobiology. Cowles holds degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cornell University and Michigan State University. Her address is Department of Biology, ECSU, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226; e-mail: email@example.com.