Book Review: A Guide to the Rock Rattlesnakes of the United States.
by Michael S. Price
Rodeo, NM: ECO Herpetological Publishing & Distribution. 2009.
160 pp., softcover, extensive color plates. $19.95.
review by Tom Lott
Rock rattlers (Crotalus lepidus) attract a cult-like following among herpetologists (amateur and professional) and herpetoculturists. Highly variable across their range, rock rattlers nevertheless manage to develop local populations that share elements of coloration and/or pattern that are characteristic of that particular locale. Lepidus cultists pride themselves on their seemingly esoteric ability to identify a specimen - or photograph - of this snake down to the specific locale from which it came. In fact, the significance of these local lepidus populations to their fanciers perhaps rivals that of the much more widely kept Gray-banded Kingsnake (Lampropeltis alterna) and Rosy Boa (Lichanura trivirgata).
As its author honestly states in the introduction, this is not intended to be a "science" book; it is "eye candy" - and saying so is no slight to this excellent little work. As any rattlesnake aficionado will attest, rock rattlers are arguably the most photogenic of their group, and Mike Price has assembled a high quality gallery of color photos of over 240 individual snakes from 52 different localities, undoubtedly the most extensive photographic compilation ever published for the two subspecies of Crotalus lepidus occurring within the boundaries of the United States.
The brief introduction is followed by a section on the general morphology of pit vipers, especially rattlesnakes, and illustrated primarily by photos of rock rattlers. Subsequently, there is a page and a half of text discussing subspecies, details and diagnoses of the four recognized subspecies of Crotalus lepidus throughout its entire range. Each of the subspecies is, of course, well illustrated by several photos. An additional chapter devotes another page and a half of text to the four pattern characters that (generally) serve to distinguish the Mottled race and the Banded race from each other, with each defining character precisely illustrated by one or more excellent photos.
The author subdivides each subspecies into three "phenotype groups." The nominate race, for example, is divided into Edwards Plateau, Stockton Plateau, and Chihuahuan Desert Mountain phenotypes, although the criteria used for these distinctions are not specified. Crotalus lepidus klauberi is also subdivided into three somewhat arbitrarily defined phenotypic groups: Chihuahuan Desert Mountains, Arizona/New Mexico Mountains, and the Sky Islands of the Mexican Plateau (NM bootheel and SE AZ), again without any diagnosis of these types provided in the text.
The following "Natural History" chapter describes the habitats occupied by these snakes in a page and three-quarters of text followed by eight pages of typical habitat shots from the six phenotypic zones and a map of these zones. Opposing the map is a listing of the 52 localities from which photos (of habitat and many more of specimens) were obtained.
The subsequent chapters, comprising the bulk of the book (110 pages), provide specific habitat photos from each of those 52 localities by phenotypic zone, followed by photos of multiple specimens from each locale. This section provides an excellent overview of the variability of the snakes from each locale - there are, for example, six photos of different snakes from the Rocksprings locality (Edwards Plateau, TX). Magnificent!
As if to allow for decompression following the overwhelming onslaught of beautiful locality Rock Rattler images, the author graciously allows us to withdraw via several short chapters describing - and of course superbly illustrating - herps sympatric with Rock Rattlers, plants that are typically associated with them, and four species that are considered to be closely related to them. And, although Mr. Price's knowledge of his subjects and skill in photographing them is highly evident, the acknowledgement and photo credit sections reveal an impressive listing of herpers who assisted him in putting this project together, accompanied by an appropriately brief list of print references.
Even though my general impression of this book is overwhelmingly favorable, I would be remiss if I avoided a few minor criticisms involving topics that could have been addressed without straying too far from the author's stated objectives. These are points that would not be noticed by anyone other than a confirmed "lepidophile," and hence hardly relevant to a more general audience: 1) since sexual dichromatism is well known for the Banded race, it is unfortunate that the opportunity to definitively illustrate this phenomenon from among the excellent photographs was missed; 2) given the popularity of these snakes among reptile keepers and recognizing that some are still collected and sold commercially, it is curious that at least the current collecting regulations regarding them in the three states in which they occur are not provided - especially since those regulations are incidentally provided for Crotalus willardi and C. pricei, similar small montane forms that are found in a few areas with rock rattlers; 3) with the exception of the two distinctive phenotypes of the nominate race in central and western Texas (basically a "limestone morph" and an "igneous morph"), most of the author's "phenotype groups" appear to be arbitrary - but probably necessary to present the wealth of images in a coherent fashion - and the variability evident within each of the three phenotypic groups of C. l. klauberi is so overlapping that it is apparent that these groupings are more geographic than genetic. Again, these criticisms are basically insider nitpicks, which would not be evident to the non-specialist reader, and my overall impression of this little book is highly favorable.
Although the preponderance of beautiful images in contrast to the sparse text will doubtless slightly frustrate some left-brained types (such as myself), Michael Price and Eco Herpetological Publishing & Distribution have succeeded in producing another very worthy and beautiful addition to the herpetological literature at an affordable price. I would highly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in southwestern herpetology and rattlesnakes in particular.
~This review originally appeared in the Herpetological Literature Discussion Forum on the Southwestern Herpetological Center for Herpetological Research website on 9 March 2010 ~