Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature

Harry W. Greene

illustrated by Michael Fogden + Patricia Fogden
University of California Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
Each chapter of Snakes begins with a short essay, often a story from Greene's personal experiences with snakes, and a dozen topics of special interest are treated in separate essays — radiotelemetry and the annual cycle of Black-tailed Rattlesnakes, Coralsnake mimicry, the plague of Brown Treesnakes on Guam, and so forth. These, combined with the pages and pages of amazing colour photographs, would have made a worthwhile book in themselves. But Greene has added to them a scholarly text: six chapters cover various aspects of snake taxonomy, ecology, anatomy, behaviour, and general biology; eight more survey particular groups of snakes; and two provide a broader overview, one focusing on snake evolution and biogeography and the other on conservation issues and the relationship between snakes and man.

Only rudimentary biology is needed to follow the text; an appendix explains the basic systematics which is the most complex requirement. Greene is writing for his fellow biologists as much as for a popular audience, however, so he does use scientific terminology and nomenclature (and provide references and a full bibliography). The depth of his material won't appeal to everyone and much of the detail — the litany of different species and their characteristics — will stick only to the serious herpetologist. An extract will give the idea:

Several Asian natricine genera, collectively called "keelbacks," are ecologically and behaviorally diverse. The Checkered Keelback (Xenochrophis piscator) is a common snake in flooded rice paddies; it feeds on fish and lays up to a hundred eggs in a clutch. Most species of Rhabdophis are terrestrial or aquatic, feeding mainly on fish and frogs, but the Speckle-bellied Keelback (R. chrysargus) climbs in bushes along streams and eats frogs, lizards, rodents, and even birds. Some montane streamsnakes (Opisthotropis) are found under stones near streams and feed on earthworms, while the Bicolored Streamsnake (O. lateralis) resembles North American natricines of the genus Regina in its striped color pattern and diet of crustaceans.

On the other hand, one wouldn't have wanted to miss learning about how Texas Blindsnakes are carried live to Screech-Owl nests, where they assist nestling survival by eating the larvae of parasitic insects in the nest debris. Or about the Asian Rock Pythons which can eat — which presumably means swallow whole! — adult Leopards. Or about Siberian Chipmunks anointing themselves with the skin secretions of ratsnakes. Or about any number of other intriguing behaviours, adaptations, and idiosyncrasies.

But it is not the details, however intriguing, that make Snakes so interesting. More importantly, it continually connects to broader evolutionary and ecological themes: for Greene the Serpentes are not just a subject for breathtaking photographs and descriptive natural history, but an enormous case-study (as it were) for ethology, phylogeny, evolutionary biology, ecology, and palaeontology (among other disciplines).

There are a few minor things that might have been improved on. Both common and scientific names appear in the index, but the entries for the former just refer one to the latter, though that takes up more space than simply repeating the page number references would. Diagrams would have been helpful with some aspects of functional anatomy (dentition and jaw morphology), and maps with the more complex species distributions. With so much and such effective photography, however, and a text that packs so much in, it would be churlish to complain too much.

June 1997

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- more animals + zoology
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%T Snakes
%S The Evolution of Mystery in Nature
%A Greene, Harry W.
%Q Fogden, Michael
%Q Fogden, Patricia
%I University of California Press
%D 1997
%O colour photographs, large format, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520200144
%P xiii,351pp