Beauty & strangeness… a review of herpetology field guides to inspire

Essential as field guides can be, by necessity they tend to be a bit lacking in background information in the wider sense. Once you have successfully identified your animal using dichotomous keys, scale counts and other anatomical features and characteristics you may wish to know a bit more about it.

Why is it using its habitat in this way? Does it have closely related species in the same area? What is it’s evolutionary history? What other species does it interact with? I find that understanding a little bit more about a species and its ecology adds hugely to the relevance of finding and observing an animal in the wild. As much as I can appreciate the sheer beauty and strangeness of herpetofauna, I think that extra understanding really enhances the whole experience.

With that thought in mind, I’d like recommend three books that will help fill in some of those details, all by highly respected authors.

First off…

‘The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica: A Herpetofauna between Two Continents, between Two Seas’ by Jay M.Savage.

Now this might appear to be a bit of a contradiction as the title makes it sound like ‘just’ a field guide, but this book is so much more. Although this is a guide to just one country, the introductory chapters (to the various Classes and Orders of reptiles and amphibians, geographic distribution, endemism etc) are, to my mind at least, as good as you will find anywhere.

I consider this book as something of a benchmark against which others of this sort may be judged. It’s an over- used phrase but I’d say this is essential if you’re buy levofloxacin uk interested in herpetology in the tropics. Of course there is a fair bit of cross-over between Costa Rican species and those you might come across on a Project Chicchan expedition in Guatemala. Having said all that I’d recommend reading it before you leave home. It’s a beast of a book at over 900 pages and it would ruin your luggage allowance, not to mention your back if you attempted to carry it through the jungle!

Next up… also easily available and affordable are

Harry Greenes ‘Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature’ and ‘Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity’ by Eric Pianka and Laurie Vitt.

These both give great overviews of the classification, biology and ecology of these groups of animals as well as looking in detail at the various lineages contained within them.

Some really important and fascinating subjects are discussed. Greene tackles things such as coral snake mimicry, viperid evolutionary innovations and fossils in small sections interspersed throughout the main text.

Pianka and Vitt provide highly readable personal anecdotes and recollections to emphasise particular topics. Both books have an abundance of absolutely stunning photographs throughout, which makes them inspiring just to flick through when the brain has absorbed enough information!

No matter how serious about herpetology we get, we all started from a fascination and attraction to these weird and wonderful, colourful and exotic creatures. These books really demonstrate the diversity of them, and should whet the appetite of any prospective Indigo Expedition volunteer to see some of them up in their natural environment.


REVIEW: Gary Powell, 9 September 2014
Published : 26th January 2014


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