The best books about natural history

The Books I Picked & Why

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

By Kim Todd

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Why this book?

This book details the life of sixteenth/seventeenth-century naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian. A woman incredibly ahead of her time, her detailed illustrations and hand-painted etchings depicted the life cycles of insects and animals in their habitats she encountered both at home and in her travels to Dutch Surinam. Her early contributions to the field of entomology are recognized to this day and reading about a woman of that era traveling independently, undertaking scientific study, and publishing her work is both fascinating and inspiring. Merian’s work is exquisite, and I definitely consider her unique work as inspiration for my own. I had the opportunity to see some of her large hand-painted etchings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on a trip to Washington, DC a few years ago.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

Why this book?

This book investigates the case of a British college student who, in 2009, broke into a suburban London museum and stole over 100 rare bird skins. The tale of how he pulled it off, the intrigue that ensued, the strange underground world of exotic fly fishing ties, and the implications for research and the loss to science of the violation of this collection, are absolutely riveting. How contemporary scientists are still learning new things from century-old bird specimens, the inner workings of museums, and the profound scope of bird extinction in the 20th century are just some of the things this book touches on. Beautifully written, I didn’t want it to end.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology

By Tim Birkhead

The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology

Why this book?

This book is a fascinating look at ornithology through the ages, from mythology and legend to the evolution of our scientific understanding of birds today. It includes beautiful illustrations from medieval monks to early naturalists through the 20th century. Even the most casual birdwatcher will learn something fascinating from this book; I read it slowly, digesting a section at a time, and it’s one I’m sure I’ll return to again and again.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

By Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Why this book?

Cephalopods are about as close to alien life as you’ll find on planet Earth. Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy and the history and philosophy of science, explores the natural history of octopuses and their close relatives in this book. It’s a fascinating look at our evolving understanding of their unique evolutionary path and implications for our own ideas of consciousness. If you’ve seen the documentary film My Octopus Teacher and want to learn more about the inner workings of our eight-legged friends and their kin, I highly recommend this book.  


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom

By Simon Barnes

Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom

Why this book?

This book is probably my favorite among natural history reading I’ve come across. A chance encounter at the library, I ended up buying a copy for myself as well as gifting it to several friends. Barnes weaves together short vignettes about science, observation, and personal encounters with nature organized from the tiniest life forms to some of the largest. Biologist JBS Haldane once said, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.” This book proves it with memorable anecdotes and a wonderful sense of kinship and compassion for life both like us and completely unlike us.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists