The best books about biodiversity, ecology, and extinction

Who am I?

I am a tropical ecologist turned writer and editor focused on biodiversity, climate change, forests, and the people who depend on them. I did my doctoral research in rainforests in Borneo and Papua New Guinea and have since worked for media organizations and research institutes, and as a mentor to journalists around the world who report on environmental issues. Ecology taught me that everything is connected. Rainforests taught me that nature can leave a person awe-struck with its beauty, complexity, or sheer magnificence. I try to share my passion for these subjects through my writing.

I wrote...

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees

By Mike Shanahan,

Book cover of Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees

What is my book about?

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers* will take you to rainforests, volcanoes, and ancient temples to discover the mind-blowing story of the strangler figs and their kin, which have shaped our world and our species in extraordinary ways. No other group of trees is more ecologically and culturally important. They sustain more species of wildlife than any other plants. They also fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced our evolution, enriched diverse cultures, and played key roles in the dawn of civilisation. Author Mike Shanahan weaves together the mythology, history, biology, and ecology of these fascinating trees, from their starring roles in every major religion to their potential to restore lost rainforests and conserve endangered species. 

*Published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why did I love this book?

This is a book I would want every politician, business leader, and concerned citizen to read to understand what some biologists are calling the ‘biodiversity crisis’. Elizabeth Kolbert is a masterful, entertaining storyteller whose curiosity and sense of wonder are infectious. She tells the story of our understanding of the great variety of life on Earth, the (relatively recent) discovery that extinction is real, and the abundant threats that hang over many species today. 

In her reporting from rainforests and reefs, laboratories and museums, Kolbert captures the hopes and fears of many fascinating scientists who are working to save what they can. She illuminates the roles humanity is playing in driving rapid biological change and explains what this means for us and the rest of nature. I found it a riveting read.

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Sixth Extinction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth.

Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species - including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino - some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.

The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most…

Book cover of The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature

Why did I love this book?

At this book’s heart is a simple idea. Biologist and writer David George Haskell repeatedly visited a Tennessee forest over one year and reported everything he observed in a circular patch just a meter across. The circle throbs with life. Haskell zooms out—in space and time—to explain the patterns and phenomena he notices as the seasons turn. His narrative expands to take in history, philosophy, folklore and more. His little circle becomes our world. 

Before I finished the first page, I had forgotten that this was the work of a scientist. Haskell is phenomenally eloquent, blessing every page with his elegant prose. It is an enthralling, meditative read. And a reminder that simply sitting still and paying attention to nature is one of the most rewarding things we can do.

By David George Haskell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Forest Unseen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A biologist reveals the secret world hidden in a single square meter of old-growth forest--a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award 

Look out for David Haskell's new book, The Songs of Tree: Stories From Nature's Great Connectors, coming in April of 2017

In this wholly original book, biologist David Haskell uses a one- square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest as a window onto the entire natural world. Visiting it almost daily for one year to trace nature's path through the seasons, he brings the forest and its inhabitants to vivid life.

Each of…

Book cover of Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals

Why did I love this book?

I happened to be at a conference of scientists trying to conserve endangered species when I first heard about Daniel Hudon’s book. It struck a chord. It is a beautiful little collection of one hundred eulogies for lost animal species. Some are brief—just a few lines long. Others are more expansive, taking in literature and reportage. But all are poignant reminders of the permanence of extinction. Hudon’s aim is simply to acknowledge that these species existed, to recognize them and make them better known. It is a beautiful and unique collection, stunning in the cumulative force of his poetic words. A perfect gift, Hudon’s tales are both tragic and inspirational. 

By Daniel Hudon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this collection of one hundred brief eulogies, science writer and poet Daniel Hudon gives a literary voice to the losses stacking up in our present-day age of extinction. Natural history, poetic prose, reportage, and eulogy blend to form a tally of degraded habitats, and empty burrows, and of the songs of birds never to be heard again.

Book cover of Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction

Why did I love this book?

This book made me rethink many of my assumptions about biodiversity, extinction risk, and conservation. Telling stories from his travels and from research around the world, biologist Chris Thomas points out a paradox: While species are going extinct at an exceptionally high rate, the number of species in most Belgium or Vermont-sized areas of the world is rising.

Thomas is not denying the threats to species or the need to conserve biodiversity. Far from it. But he argues that conservation is often misguided and inherently unsustainable, trying to achieve a nonexistent ‘wild’ state and ignoring nature’s dynamism. He proposes a new philosophy of conservation, that is human-centered, accepting of biological change, sustainable, and aimed at maximizing biological diversity for future generations.

By Chris D. Thomas,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Inheritors of the Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


It is accepted wisdom today that human beings have irrevocably damaged the natural world. Yet what if this narrative obscures a more hopeful truth?

In Inheritors of the Earth, renowned ecologist and environmentalist Chris D. Thomas overturns the accepted story, revealing how nature is fighting back.

Many animals and plants actually benefit from our presence, raising biological diversity in most parts of the world and increasing the rate at which new species are formed, perhaps to the highest level in Earth's history. From Costa Rican tropical forests to the thoroughly…

Book cover of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Why did I love this book?

Mushrooms and other fungi are more closely related to us than they are to plants. And yet they are barely known, poorly understood, and generally underappreciated. Merlin Sheldrake’s book fixes this. It will blow your mind again and again. As Sheldrake explains, fungi force us to rethink concepts of intelligence, communication, and cooperation. 

I’ve chosen to include this in a list of books about biodiversity because it shows how fundamental fungi are to all life on Earth, including our own lives—and not only not now, but also in the depths of our distant past and onwards into the future. These curious lifeforms can eat plastic, make soil, and cure diseases. They can turn insects into zombies and humans into philosophers. Ninety percent of plants depend on them. Without them, we simply wouldn’t be here.

By Merlin Sheldrake,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked Entangled Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A “brilliant [and] entrancing” (The Guardian) journey into the hidden lives of fungi—the great connectors of the living world—and their astonishing and intimate roles in human life, with the power to heal our bodies, expand our minds, and help us address our most urgent environmental problems.

“Grand and dizzying in how thoroughly it recalibrates our understanding of the natural world.”—Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR—Time, BBC Science Focus, The Daily Mail, Geographical, The Times, The Telegraph, New Statesman, London Evening Standard, Science Friday

When we think…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in biodiversity, evolution, and Tennessee?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about biodiversity, evolution, and Tennessee.

Biodiversity Explore 18 books about biodiversity
Evolution Explore 119 books about evolution
Tennessee Explore 60 books about Tennessee