Preface

when this book was first published in 1989, it was a story produced in Britain and based mainly on research done in the Palaearctic (Britain and Eurasia), plus smaller contributions from the United States and New Zealand. British interest in natural history for its own sake goes back to Gilbert White and his clerical colleagues in the middle 1700s, who loved to observe and report on anything they saw wild animals doing as they rode around their country parishes. Later, "organized natural history" became the basis for Darwin's understanding of evolution via natural selection, and later still it became one of the roots of the science of ecology, which developed in the old-established universities in the United States and Europe from the 1920s onward.

Britain also pioneered the tradition of shooting wild-bred game birds, which required an army of professional gamekeepers to implement rigorous control of predators, including stoats and weasels. In Russia, stoats in ermine had been an important source of fur, and state-funded research programs dating back to the 1930s attempted to work out why the fur harvests varied so much from year to year. British colonists in New Zealand attempted to deal with their rabbit problem by introducing mustelids—thereby implementing a large-scale, uncontrolled practical experiment in biological control, whose consequences have since cost millions, measured in both dollars and lives. All these traditions were well represented in the first edition of this book.

Much has changed in the world since then, in the ecological sciences as much as everywhere else. One of the most astonishing changes has been the geographic shift in the sources of research papers, which in turn reflects profound changes in the way research is organized and funded. In Europe, about the same number of papers on stoats and weasels has been published every decade since the 1970s, although the subjects of interest have changed with time. But in North America, the number has been slowly declining, and in New Zealand, it has been rapidly accelerating (King 2005c).

The difference shows where the funding is. Research on native species tends to ask theoretical questions, such as (the hot topic in Europe for the last few years) the role of predation by weasels and stoats in causing the multiannual population cycles in lemmings and other small rodents. Research on introduced species tends to ask practical questions, most urgently about how the damage caused by invasive aliens to native biodiversity can be prevented or controlled. New Zealand is the only country where stoats and weasels are now regarded as important introduced pests, and the increase in state funding to support research on their biology and control since the middle 1990s has stimulated intensive research programs on these species, produced huge amounts of new information, and changed a lot of previous ideas.

The first edition of this book was produced in Britain and sold in North America as a coproduction, but this new edition of the book is produced in the United States and copublished in Britain and New Zealand. While it still owes a great deal to its British foundations, it is now much more consciously a North American book. The core zoological descriptions remain the same, as they must, but to illustrate them, stories about British gamekeepers are supplemented with early North American observations and recent studies from New Zealand. Basic facts about the species are included wherever they came from, so we have formulated the questions that arise from the facts in terms that should appeal to readers everywhere, but we hope the new version might stimulate more research on these fascinating animals in North America.

In the end, we have tried to write a book that is not only a thorough scientific reference about weasels, but also a book that provides the general public with a way to learn about these marvellous, intriguing critters.

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