Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, a Sacred Tradition, by Bill Hess (Sasquatch, $40). The Inupiat peoples of Arctic Alaska have been hunting bowhead whales for millennia -- the tradition may go back as far as 5,000 years. It was almost lost in the 1970s, however, when the International Whaling Commission, fearing for the species' survival, banned hunting. To the Inupiat, this was not only a tragedy but just plain wrong -- based upon their own sightings and informal censusing, they were convinced that bowhead whales were abundant. In the end, the commission came around to the local viewpoint, estimating that a population of 8,000 bowheads migrates through Alaskan waters each year, of which the Inupiat are now allowed to harvest an average of 51. In text and grainy black-and-white photographs, Bill Hess depicts the hunt and evokes its ritual importance to the communities that engage in it. -- D.D.
Mammals of North America: Temperate and Arctic Regions, by Adam Forsyth (Firefly, $40). Covering everything from bats to whales, with a large middle ground occupied by such furry or hide-coated creatures as rabbits, foxes, wolves, deer and oxen, Adam Forsyth writes knowledgeably and succinctly about his subjects. Take the lynx, for example, that striking cat with black, rod-like extensions on its ears. Its fate, Forsyth points out, is intertwined with that of the snowshoe hare, so much so that "they share 10-year cycles of boom and bust. The increase in the number of hares is closely followed by an increase in the number of lynx; then, as the hares deplete their food resources, and their populations begin to dwindle, the lynx also decline." Recently, the lynx booms have been getting steadily softer -- probably as a result of human intervention; in Forsyth's words, "the lynx, like many spotted cats of the tropics, is threatened by the luxury-fur trade." While the lynx is silent and solitary, not so the narwhal, that corkscrew-tusked marine mammal that is thought to have inspired the legend of the unicorn. The narwhal, Forsyth writes, is "highly gregarious and vocal." The photographs in this book are nicely variegated -- a mountain lion with mouth agape in a growl, a lazy seal with half-open eyes, a hoary marmot poised on a rock to take an alpine sniff. -- D.D.
Snake, by Chris Mattison (DK, $29.95); Snakes: Their Care and Keeping, by Lenny Flank Jr. (Howell Book House, $24.95). Too often feared, always fascinating, snakes come in 3,000 or more species and every color and length, from the giant anaconda (which can top 30 feet) to the tiny Martinique thread snake (longest recorded specimen: four-and-a-half inches). Chris Mattison's splendid Snake begins by deconstructing "The Essential Snake": the animal's evolution (most likely from lizards who opted for a burrowing lifestyle and so could dispense with gams), its anatomy, cunning locomotion, feeding, reproductive and defensive strategies, as well as classification and conservation efforts. (Like many other creatures, snakes have suffered from development and other human activity all over the world.) Herpitologist Mattison offers up, among other tidbits, the answer to why a snake's tongue flickers in and out: The animal comes equipped with an extra sensory organ, the Jacobson's organ, "a pair of depressions, or sacs, in the roof of [its] mouth into which it inserts the tips of its forked tongue." The tongue goes in and out "searching for scent molecules in the atmosphere" and imports them to the Jacobson's organ, "where molecules are analyzed and the information passed to the brain." Having become acquainted with the intimate details of snakedom, the reader's primed for the next section of the book, a "Snake Gallery" showcasing 61 species of snake in full sinuous color and describing each species' range, chief distinguishing marks and habits.
Thinking of adding a snake to the household? Lenny Flank Jr.'s Snakes: Their Care and Keeping offers many useful how-to hints for keeping you and your slithery friend healthy and happy. If a pet dealer urges you to buy a Burmese python, for instance, consider that in two years' time a "Burm" can grow to be 8 to 10 feet long and tip the scales at 50 pounds: not exactly the lap dog of snakes. "As with all large constrictors, Burmese Pythons should never be handled alone," Flank advises, "and safe handling usually requires a minimum of one person for every 5 feet of snake. If properly treated, Burms can make good companions. They are not, however, suited for beginning snake keepers." -- J.H.
The Great Auk, by Errol Fuller (Abrams, $75). Now more than 150 years extinct, the gawky, flightless Great Auk is brought back to life in this massive, glossy showcase of a book. Of all the vanished birds, this must be the most lovingly remembered: every drawing, every snippet of lore, every housed specimen, every known extant egg is set down with care and flourish. There is for instance "The Dresden Egg," a spotted specimen considered one of the most precious objects belonging to the Dresden Museum when that city was strafed by bombs at the end of World War II: "Although the [egg] cases escaped the bombs, they didn't avoid the attention of the victorious Red Army as it swept across Germany from the east. Russian soldiers carried them off as spoils of war and for many years the whereabouts of many important natural history specimens were unknown -- at least as far as the western world was concerned. It was generally believed they'd been destroyed. . . . This was not the case, however. Many were carried back to Leningrad where they remained for upwards of 30 years." One, it seems, made it back home. If a single ancient egg is recorded so carefully, you can imagine how the bird itself fares. -- M.A.