There’s a certainly delicious irony in the fact that my copy of Flattened Fauna: A field guide to common animals of roads, streets, and highways has become resolutely three-dimensional whilst I have been reading it. I couldn’t get it to flatten down for a photoshoot, even though “…in becoming part of the road fauna celebrated in this book, an animal loses not only its life but also its third dimension.”
Although I now write mainly about plants, and have been writing recently about the dangers of plant blindness, when I was younger it was animals all the way. But I was a quirky kid, and it wasn’t the cute animals that caught my eye, but hedgehogs, in all their spiny glory. In the UK it’s common to see squashed hedgehos on the roads, which is one of the reasons why the hedgehog population is dropping. In the book’s jargon, they have become part of the road fauna.
I was recently talking to a former colleague about the sleepless nights she had been experiencing as a new mum to a sickly child. She and her husband spent most nights driving around country lanes in their area to soothe the baby to sleep, and saw a lot of wildlife (deer, badgers, even owls) whilst doing so. They are unusual – I would imagine most people in the UK these days rarely see wildlife whilst it’s alive, but on an almost daily basis trammelled into the tarmac.
I suspect I’m not alone when, whizzing past in the car, I try and identify road kill animals by their flattened shape, and so I was intrigued to find that someone (Roger M. Knutson) had written a book on the topic, complete with flattened reference diagrams. The book is “…devoted to making the experience of seeing dead animals on the road meaningful, even enjoyable.”
What I didn’t expect is that, although it certainly is a field guide to the species you can expect to find in the road fauna in North America, it’s also hilarious. I’m 90% certain this is intentional, and that the book has been written slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not entirely sure. When discussing the various discarded items that can look uncannily like road kill at first glance, including hunks of earth, the author says: “I don’t usually encourage driving over a specimen to help with identification, but if you suspect that the pale tan lump is a sod chunk mimic, drive over it. Two loud thumps from the tires will help confirm your suspicions. Yotam Yom-Tov reports in his examination of flat creatures that driving over them causes no change in shape or size.”
In the Introduction Knutson notes that the road fauna developed in the 20th century, when fast cars and hard-surfaced roads conquered the planet. The animal kingdom hasn’t had time to adapt to the changes in its habitat, although it might do so if cars and roads persist for a thousand years or so.
In Chapter 2 he covers the need for international investigations into road fauna, and encourages enthusiastic amateurs to take part. It all smacks slightly of a hobby for the Addams Family, but in actual fact a certain amount of serious research is done on the topic, either to assess the health and safety aspects or as a form of wildlife survey. You can have a look at Deer Collisions for the former, and Mammals on Roads and Project Splatter for the latter.
Knutson notes that there are laws prohibiting the collection of animals in the US, and recommends collecting photos rather than specimens for that and other reasons (including the obvious health and safety ones). Those still apply in the UK, although apparently the laws on road kill animals are less stringent and you can pick them up if you want to.
The later chapters in this slim volume focus on the road fauna themselves, with detailed descriptions and silhouette diagrams to help with identification “at highway speeds. However, situations with less traffic allow you too briefly slow to 30 mph and examine the specimen in a more leisurely fashion.”
Chapter 3 is about road snakes, which we’re unlikely to come across very often in the UK. Chapter 4, Legged reptiles and amphibians, is closer to our experience, as no doubt many of us will have tried to avoid frog runs in the spring time. There was one right by the house I grew up in; these days I walk along one in my daily perambulations about my local area. I am grateful I don’t have to worry about running into (or over) an Alligator, however.
Chapter 5 has some interesting information about the (deliberate) introduction of British birds – the House Sparrow and the Starling – into American cities, and their common appearance in the road fauna. It also confirms something I’d never really thought about – Road runners are real (Geococcyx californianus), although perhaps not quite as they appear in cartoons:
And chapter 6 is about road mammals, the most familiar of which for a UK audience will be the brown rat Rattus norvegicus, which – considering its large population and urban distribution – rarely appears in the road fauna. It appears that rats, having lived alongside humans forever, have got wise to our automotive antics.
The book ends with a bibliography, an index, and a ‘Death List’ inside the back cover in which you can begin to record your flattened fauna investigations.
All-in-all this is a fun book, useful if you live in North America and wonder about the wildlife you see squashed onto the highway, but of interest to readers elsewhere in the world as a guide (albeit a slightly macabre one) to North American wildlife. If you’re a lover of quirky reads, then this is one for you 🙂
I was provided with a review copy of Flattened Fauna by the SocialBookCo, a price comparison website that aims to find you the best price for your books. Click through to see deals on Flattened Fauna if you’re thinking of buying the book!