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.

The books I picked & why

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why 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.


The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature

By David George Haskell,

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

Why 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.


Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals

By Daniel Hudon,

Book cover of Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals

Why 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. 


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

By Chris D. Thomas,

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

Why 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.


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

By Merlin Sheldrake,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in biodiversity, evolution, and Tennessee?

5,888 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 17 books about biodiversity
Evolution Explore 86 books about evolution
Tennessee Explore 42 books about Tennessee

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Braiding Sweetgrass, Britain's Pilgrim Places, and The Fourth Phase of Water if you like this list.