Book Review: Stalking the Plumed Serpent and Other Adventures in Herpetology
by D. Bruce Means,
Pineapple Press, Inc.: Sarasota, Florida, 2008. Hardbound. IX + 238 pp., 34 color plates. $23.47
Review by Tom Lott
Most herpers will be familiar with Dr. Bruce Means from his long association as director of the Tall Timbers Research Station in the Florida panhandle. During this time he established himself as the primary authority on the biology of the iconic Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) and many other representatives of the southeastern herpetofauna (his popular account of his work with the Eastern Diamondback, entitled Diamonds in the Rough, is due to appear shortly in book form).
Means also occasionally appears in television nature documentaries such as those produced by the National Geographic Society, including at least one episode which recreated his near-fatal envenomation by an Eastern Diamondback while conducting studies on this species on an isolated barrier island off the coast of Georgia.
Thus, with his academic and experiential bona fides well established, Means undertakes to communicate to the reader in twenty-two relatively short chapters his life-long fascination with “creepy-crawlies” that most people are repulsed by or consider beneath serious interest. Should he succeed in convincing his readers that herps (in the broadest sense) are as fascinating as he perceives them to be, Means hopes that such persons will be more inclined to support the conservation measures that are desperately needed to insure the continued existence of many of these species.
The book’s title derives from a single chapter in which Means’ attempts to discern whether the “plumed serpent” of Maya and Aztec legend actually refers to the only rattlesnake that normally occurs in the Yucatan area, Crotalus tzabcan, a species recently separated from the widespread Neotropical Rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) group. His observations provide some natural history information about this very rarely observed and seldom studied snake.
As a somewhat informed reader, I found the first half of this book to constitute Means at his best, recounting his experiences with the southeastern US forms he knows better than most. The first four chapters deal, as one would expect, with various aspects of the biology of the Eastern Diamondback, which he refers to as the “Gentle Ben of Rattlesnakes.”
Another chapter contains one of the better explanations I have yet read of the status and evolutionary history of the Apalachicola Kingsnake, a relictual race of the common kingsnake restricted to a very small portion of the Florida panhandle. Now named Lampropeltis getula meansi in his honor, Means was among the first to sort out the confusing variety of color and pattern variations that evolved in a small area where lowering sea levels connected previously isolated barrier islands with the mainland.
Another interesting chapter recounts Means’ experiences with a team of herpetologists studying the endangered Eastern Indigo Snake in Georgia, a species that, ironically, Means had never encountered during his many years of field work at the Tall Timbers Station.
Additional chapters in the first half of the book deal with topics as diverse as the highly endangered Red Hills Salamander, “chasing behavior” in Cottonmouths, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, a surprisingly herpetologically relevant discussion of the Cotton Rat (if one accepted the conventional wisdom that Eastern Diamondbacks feed mainly upon cottontail rabbits), and an interesting account of the author’s discovery of a species of earthworm that literally “glows in the dark.”
For me, the second half of the book, where Means departs far afield from his usual haunts in the southeastern US, holds somewhat less academic interest than the more domestic chapters preceding it. Centered mainly in Australia, with a side excursion to Madagascar, the narrative in the second half assumes a tone that could best described as Steve Irwinesque, although admittedly much more academically substantial.
In his extended forays to Australia, Means succeeds wildly in managing to observe most of the species that would rank high on any visiting herper’s wish list: Rough-scaled Python, Inland Taipan, Green Tree Python, Black Tiger Snake, Scrub Python, Coastal Taipan, etc. He also investigates the Australian aboriginal tradition of the “Wonambi,” or “Rainbow Serpent,” which he discovers may not have represented an actual snake at all.
Unfortunately, with most of the dangerously venomous species (all of which possess some of the most potent venoms known), Means seems to invariably place himself in situations that (allegedly) require him to handle the snakes, much in the manner that we have come to especially associate with the late Steve Irwin. Given Means’ allergy to antisera, his account of attempting to drive a Toyota Land Cruiser—complete with right-hand drive and manual transmission—while holding a Coastal Taipan in his left hand is chilling in its recklessness. Working alone, in a highly remote area, a Taipan bite would have been almost certainly fatal, even if qualified medical assistance had been obtained in a minimal amount of time—unlikely, given the location and circumstances.
Herpetological narratives such as this one will inevitably be compared to those penned by the great Carl Kauffeld, the master of the genre. How Bruce Means’ present work measures up will largely depend upon how much information the reader brings to the subject matter; those who admire sensationalistic Steve Irwin travelogues will doubtless appreciate the latter chapters more than the relatively sedentary, though deeper, earlier ones.
Regardless of one’s perspective, however, the present book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, sure to entertain and educate any reader who attempts it. My own personal criterion for such natural history narratives involves simply asking myself the question, did I learn anything from this work? In this case, I have to admit that I learned quite a bit, thanks to Dr. Means, and I eagerly anticipate the forthcoming Diamonds in the Rough.
~This review originally appeared in the Herpetological Literature Discussion Forum on the Southwestern Herpetological Center for Herpetological Research website in December 2008. Dr. Means' proposed book, Diamonds in the Rough has yet to appear.~