by Robert Powell, Roger Conant, and Joseph T. Collins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2016.
Softcover. 512 pp. List: $21.00, Amazon: $14.41, Ebook: Currently unavailable. ISBN 978-0544129979
Review by Tom Lott
In the 58 years since its first appearance, the Peterson Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America has undergone three major revisions (1975, 1991, and 2016) and one minor one (1998). This new edition covers 501 species, an increase of 32% over the 379 included in the 1991 edition (the previous major revision). Unfortunately, most of that increase is due to exotic species that have been recognized as established and the promotion of taxa previously regarded as subspecies to full species status.
The number of pages in this latest edition, however, has increased only to 494 from the previous 450, an enlargement of only about 10%. Obviously, then, a considerable amount of material has been cut from the previous edition. Most of the deletions appear to have come from introductory sections regarding captive care and from natural history comments within the individual taxon accounts, which have been reduced to terse listings of habitats in which the animals are typically found.
Established, newly-added non-native species carry a distinctive red “non-native” notation following their species name in the text. Regrettably, however, their photos have not been added to Isabelle Conant’s classic identification plates, which remain largely intact. Instead, photos of non-native species appear almost randomly in the appropriate section of the text.
Similarly, photos of legitimately new taxa (rather than promoted former subspecies or “cryptic” species) have not been added to the traditional plates, but are included in the text, some at a considerable distance from their account entries. Nor, in some cases, have such taxa been included in the “similar species” sections of accounts where it would have been appropriate.
In a major layout alteration of no particular practical consequence, amphibians now precede reptiles. Likewise, diagrams illustrating the proper techniques for measuring herps are now placed in the introductory section rather than on the endplates, and the limited tadpole identification section has been eliminated, presumably on the assumption that more thorough resources are available elsewhere, especially on the internet.
Gone also is Roger Conant’s practice of providing separate accounts for each major subspecies, lumping together only those that were most similar in appearance and/or habits to the major one. The new lead author, clearly belonging to the subspecies denial school, lumps all currently recognized subspecies into abbreviated descriptions appended at the end of each species account. In the introduction, Dr. Powell seems almost annoyed at having to deal with subspecies at all, stating that “the entire concept has fallen into disfavor in recent years” and “may not be recognized in the future.” He further implies that subspecies are worthy of recognition only to the extent that they might be indicators of populations to be elevated to full species in the future. So much for recognizing diversity!
The range maps continue the trend established in the “expanded” third edition (1998) of being located throughout the species accounts, near the relevant taxon being discussed, rather than lumped together as a group at the end of the text accounts. Continued also is the representation of ranges with various colors rather than black and white patterns. Also new and helpful is the inclusion of color-coded page margins to rapidly identify the major sections of the book dealing with the various major groups of herps (i.e., salamanders, frogs, turtles, etc.).
Most of the range maps, however, have been revised from the 1998 edition by Dr. Travis Taggart, of the Center for North American Herpetology (CNAH), some apparently for the better, others not so much. Stanley Trauth has listed a number of inaccuracies for his home state of Arkansas (Trauth 2016) and it may be reasonably assumed that a similar number of problems exist for other states covered by this guide. In Texas, for example, the range of the Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis) is seriously under-represented (see Keown and Salmon 2014).
Another good example consists of the treatment of the milksnake complex (Lampropeltis triangulum, sensu lato) in Texas. In the 1998 edition, the milksnakes were still considered to consist of a single species comprised of four subspecies distributed more or less contiguously, at least in the southern and eastern portions of the state. This latest edition, however, follows the proposal of Ruane et al. (2014) that only two full species of the milksnake complex, the “Tamaulipan Milksnake, Lampropeltis annulata” and the Western Milksnake, Lampropeltis gentilis,” inhabit Texas. The new map suggests that an extensive hiatus in distribution exists between “L annulata” and “L. gentilis,” running from the south-central Texas coast to the north-central Texas border, with a vast area of central Texas uninhabited by either “species.”
While this paradigm is somewhat suggested by the most recent compilation of Texas snake distributions (Dixon 2013), and is in keeping with the Ruane et al. (op. cit.) proposal, it ignores the fact well known to Texas herpers that milksnakes phenotypically intermediate between “L. annulata” and “L. gentilis”(i.e., L. t. amaura) remain common on the offshore barrier islands of the entire Texas coast, despite the fact that virtually all of the adjacent mainland coastal prairie habitat has been converted into extensive areas of monoculture unfavorable for the species.
Traditionally the incorporation of a new taxonomic arrangement into a field guide format has been highly influential to its acceptance. The average person, or even the average hobbyist, typically will never read the technical literature nor even consult the so-called standardized lists. They will, however, generally accept whatever taxonomy their field guide uses as being authoritative. Thus it is unfortunate that most of the recent controversial proposals that desperately require either refutation or confirmation from other workers using different methods have been incorporated into this new edition of a previously venerable field guide.
Trauth, Stanley E. 2016. “Book Review: Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America.” Herpetol. Rev. 47(3): 497-498.
Conant, R. 1958. A field guide to the reptiles and amphibians of the United States and Canada east of the 100th meridian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
_________. 1975. A field guide to the reptiles and amphibians: Eastern and central North America. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
_________. and J.T. Collins. 1991. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians of eastern-central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
_______________________. 1998. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians of eastern-central North America, 3rd edition (expanded). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Dixon, J.R. 2013. Amphibians and reptiles of Texas. 3rd Ed. W. L. Moody, Jr., Nat. Hist. Ser. 25. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Keown, G. and G. T. Salmon. 2014. “Geographic distribution. Leptodeira septentrionalis.” Herpetol. Rev. 45(3): 466.
Ruane, S.; R. W. Bryson, Jr., R. A. Pyron, and F. T. Burbrink. 2014. “Coalescent species delimitation in milksnakes (genus Lampropeltis) and impacts on phylogenetic comparative analyses.” Systematic Biology 63(2):231–250.
[This review originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the SWCHR Bulletin]