Book Review: Texas Amphibians: A Field Guide
by Bob L. Tipton, Terry L. Hibbitts, Toby J. Hibbitts, Troy D. Hibbitts, and Travis J. LaDuc
University of Texas Press: Austin, 2012. Softcover. 325 pp. $24.95.
Review by Tom Lott
The most basic function of a field guide consists merely of aiding the reader in identifying organisms in question. In general, the wider the scope of any field guide, the less auxiliary information it will be able to include in a format intended to actually be carried into the field; a field guide restricted to only the amphibians of a single, albeit very large, state, however, should be able to provide more supplementary information than one encompassing all of the herps of the United States. The current volume does not disappoint in that respect.
This book is a collaboration between three "amateur" (in the sense that Lawrence Klauber was an amateur!) and two professional herpetologists, all of whom have vast experience with Texas herps. The lead author, Bob Tipton, sadly passed away in 2010 due to cancer, but he doubtless would have been pleased that the collective authors' efforts have finally reached fruition. It is the seventh volume in the University of Texas Press' Texas Natural History Guides and the third dealing with herpetological subjects (Dixon and Werler's 2005 Texas Snakes: A Field Guide and the late Andy Price's 2009 Venomous Snakes of Texas: A Field Guide are the others). One can hope that these are followed by similar works on the turtles and lizards.
In its physical dimensions, Texas Amphibians measures 7.5" X 4.8" (19 cm X 12.2 cm), the same as other works in the series, keeping with the notion that the book might occasionally actually be used in the field. Its covers are composed of a flexible, plastic-feeling material that appears to be quite durable, and its pages are actually sewn onto a cloth spine rather than being merely held in place by glue.
The previous work to which this new book will most likely be compared is the out-of-print Gulf Publishing Company's A Field Guide to Texas Reptiles and Amphibians, by the indefatigable R.D. and Patricia P. Bartlett (1999). That work covered 73 taxa of amphibians (including subspecies) to a similar level of textual detail, beyond mere identification (and also included turtles and lizards). The current work covers 72 species of amphibians (thanks mainly to the description of several new species of neotenic salamanders); subspecies, where they exist, are listed in the species account, but are not described, illustrated, nor shown in the range maps.
The most basic function of the field guide - identification - is first addressed by the inclusion of dichotomous keys that are somewhat modified versions (updated and with improved illustrations) of those included in James R. Dixon's (2000) work, and will generally take the user to the species level of classification for most specimens (Dixon's original keys included diagnosis to the subspecies level). At least nine of the endemic Edwards Plateau neotenic salamanders, however, are diagnosed in the keys by referring to their geographic origin, rather than to anatomical distinctions, a problem encountered more frequently in modern field guides due to the increasing tendency of taxonomists to describe new "cryptic" species based solely on genetic differences impossible to determine in the field (doubtless even the handful of experts on this group would be hard-pressed to visually identify some species in the absence of locality data). Also included is a brief key to the genera of most Texas amphibians that include a free-living larval stage in their development.
In most cases, however, I suspect the casual user of a field guide wishes to arrive at an identification primarily by consulting the illustrations. In this respect, Texas Amphibians is quite accommodating, at least in those situations where this is possible. There are typically two or three photographs in each of the species accounts, depicting variation in coloration, ontology, and geographic origin of the specimen (which is provided, by county, for each photo). The photographs are of consistently very high quality (presumably mostly taken by the authors) and are reproduced in a format that is gratifyingly larger than one finds in many such guides. There is also a very brief, but well-done, section in the introduction regarding techniques for photographing amphibians.
Each species account includes the following topics: size, description, voice (for anurans), similar species, distribution, natural history, reproduction, and comments and conservation. This last section is where the conservation status of each species is discussed, along with the authors' comments on the species within the state. If the taxon is not on the state Threatened & Endangered (T&E) list, its standing on either the "white" or "black" Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lists is given. Where major environmental threats are recognized for a particular species, they are mentioned in this section.
Taxonomic arrangements and common names used by the authors generally follow those endorsed by the combined national herp societies (Crother 2008) with three notable exceptions, which are explained in the introduction: 1) the genus Syrrhophus is conservatively retained for the chirping frogs (rather than lumping them with Eleutherodactylus) on the contention that they represent a distinct group more closely related to each other than to other members of the newly erected family Eleutherodactylidae; 2) citing reservations about the mitochondrial DNA data used in several recent studies that variously split up the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) complex, Pseudacris feriarum is retained as a more conservative option for the Texas populations of the complex rather than accepting the newly described Cajun Chorus Frog (Pseudacris fouquettei); 3) considering the taxonomic status of the sirens of the Lower Rio Grande Valley to be currently unresolved, the authors chose to list them as merely Siren sp. Also, the recent splitting of several large, cosmopolitan genera such as Rana and Bufo are accommodated by placing the older, more familiar name within brackets (e.g., Anaxyrus [Bufo] speciosus for the Texas Toad).
The range maps are of the shaded area type and are rendered more detailed by their plotting over a county outline base map. In general, the maps tend to be somewhat less conservative than those in the snake field guide (Dixon and Werler 2005), but are lacking the surface detail of those in that work. The map for the Rio Grande Chirping Frog, for example, plots three northwesterly populations (two of which have not yet been published in the literature) as being isolated from the remainder of this invasive frog's distribution, which is depicted as contiguous. The distribution maps in this volume are, however, perhaps the most accurate ones currently available in their size and format, and comprise a vast improvement over those provided in Bartlett and Bartlett (1999).