Snakes of the Eastern United States

The short version of this review: remember Snakes of the Southeast, the field guide by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, the second edition of which I reviewed last year and thought so highly of? Well, now Gibbons has done the same thing, only covering the entire eastern United States, with (appropriately enough) Snakes of the Eastern United States (University of Georgia Press, April 2017). Go get it.

But maybe I should expand on that a bit.

What impressed me about Snakes of the Southeast is that it knew its intended audience: not scholars, not hobbyists, but the general public. And in pitching itself at that audience, it knew what questions needed answering. As I said in my review last year:

The core of the book, the species guide, is detailed but plain-spoken, and does not drown the reader in scholarly references. It’s beautifully laid-out, with full-colour range maps and photographs of the region’s snakes. Its identification guide eschews the detailed scale counts used by professional herpetologists in favour of emphasizing distinctive traits and other factors more easily recognized by amateurs. And with two additional chapters explaining basic snake biology and exploring the relationship between snakes and humans, Snakes of the Southeast becomes a one-book solution: the book that tries to cover all the bases and answer all the questions about snakes that someone in the region might reasonably have.

Snakes of the Eastern United States follows that prescription down the line, which is no surprise given that it shares an author and a publisher with the previous book. The many virtues of Snakes of the Southeast, above and beyond being a species guide, are now accessible to people from outside that region. I’ve got a book I can recommend to more people.

In terms of its function as a species guide, as well as on field guides in general, though, I have a few thoughts.

Once again, this book takes an extremely conservative position on snake taxonomy. Rat snakes, for example, are called Pantherophis instead of the old Elaphe, but the traditional subspecies are maintained “because in most cases ratsnakes from particular geographic regions are easily identifiable based on color and pattern” (p. 198). Neither does Gibbons separate out the Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) into separate species, nor adopt the more recent taxonomic changes to swamp, crayfish and milk snakes. One gets the impression he sees these changes as for change’s sake.

Regional field guides have interesting edge cases, especially when they’re defined by political boundaries (a country, state or province) that don’t necessarily line up with bioregions: there’s always something atypical living in the borderlands. Gibbons defines the eastern United States as every state east of the Mississippi, excluding Minnesota but including Louisiana. So in this case we get central and western species like the Western Worm Snake (Carpophis vermis), Western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus), Great Plains Rat Snake (Pantherophis emoryi) and Lined Snake (Tropidoclonium lineatum) at the edges of Gibbons’s maps. Illinois is usually the culprit.

(Speaking of maps: the map for the Butler’s Garter Snake [Thamnophis butleri] doesn’t include its Wisconsin range—a surprising omission given its politically charged status in that state.)

Then there’s the question of how the species are organized. This is actually an important consideration when the guide covers a large area or a large number of species. Some guides, simply list them in alphabetical order after sorting them by family (e.g. boas, colubrids, pit vipers) or separating the nonvenomous from the venomous snakes: this is the approach taken in Ernst and Ernst’s Snakes of the United States and Canada, Rossi and Rossi’s Snakes of the United States and Canada (no relation), and Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes. Others, like Alan Tennant in his state and regional field guides, categorize them in some fashion, e.g., small snakes versus aquatic snakes versus large terrestrial snakes.

Gibbons takes the latter approach, which necessitates some odd judgment calls, like splitting the kingsnakes between the midsize and large terrestrial snakes categories, or putting the closely related (and not that different in size) Short-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis brachystoma) and Butler’s Garter Snake in the small and midsize categories, respectively. It’s the edge cases that’ll get you every time.

But these are quibbles, and there are always quibbles in books like these, which involve the compilation of a huge amount of field data, scientific knowledge, photography and text that must somehow come together in a whole that is not only coherent, but readable. This book achieves that end result far better than most.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Unfeathered Tyrannosaur

Albertosaurus diorama, Royal Tyrell Museum, Dec. 27, 2008.

Ever since tyrannosauroid fossils (namely, Dilong and Yutyrannus) started turning up with evidence of feathers, the idea that the Big T and its close relatives were at least partially feathered themselves was awfully intriguing. I mean, basal coelurosaurs had feathers, early tyrannosauroids had feathers—it stood to reason. But a new study examining fossilized tyrannosaur skin impressions concludes that Tyrannosaurus and its close relatives Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbosaurus had scaly skin rather than feathers. Size may be one reason why: large mammals are less hairy for heat-loss reasons (the exceptions being arctic dwellers like mammoths).

I admit to some disappointment: I was more invested in the idea of a feathered T. rex than I ought to have been.

The Return of the Eighties

Check out this bootleg upload of The Ronnie and Nancy Show, a Spitting Image special broadcast in January 1987. We’ve come full circle: NBC making fun of the befuddled and bewildered occupant of the White House—though Reagan’s vibe was more amiable dotard than raging toddler. For all of Trump’s complaints about Saturday Night Live, this Spitting Image special was an order of magnitude more savage about Reagan—and it ran in prime time.

Of course, jokes about a dunderheaded president getting us all killed are a bit too on the nose right now.

I’m not in the least nostalgic for the Eighties, even if I grew up in them. The fact that the Eighties are making something of a comeback, at least politically speaking—the U.S. president’s mindset seems permanently stuck in the Eighties, the Quebec premier seems nostalgic for the days of the Meech Lake Accord—is not, in my books, a good thing.

A Herpetological Roundup

Brown-snouted Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops wiedii or nigriscens), November 13, 2015. Photo by Will Brown. Creative Commons Licence.
  1. Known from only a handful of specimens since its discovery in 1937 and feared extinct, the Albany Adder (Bitis albanica) was found alive and well—at least four specimens were—last November, in a South African location that is being kept secret to deter poachers. Because yes, poachers will collect the shit out of these snakes.
  2. The plan to reintroduce Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts has been suspended in the face of local opposition; the Worcester Telegram’s outdoors writer Mark Blazis is disappointed.
  3. Ontario Nature has announced its new and improved Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas app, which isn’t so much an app as it is a mobile website that supports offline data. Anyway, it’s got a field guide and lets you enter species sightings.
  4. Fossil snakes are generally known from their vertebrae, which makes their study a little less exciting to the lay reader than dinosaurs; still, it’s rather exciting that a new extinct species, Zilantophis schuberti, has been described from a fossil found in eastern Tennessee. “Zilantophis bore uniquely broad wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae. In life, these were likely attachment sites for back muscles. These features are what inspired the name of the new genus, derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Tatar mythology.” [Journal of Herpetology]
  5. Blind snakes (Scolecophidia) are tiny, secretive and easily overlooked; even so, there’s something of a blind snake renaissance going on, says Andrew Durso. “I recently noticed, much to my surprise, the the number of described species of blindsnakes has doubled in the last 13 years, from 305 in 2004 to 599 today; that’s 16.5% of all snakes! There are certainly many undiscovered species of blindsnakes, so it’s likely that their numbers will continue to grow.”
  6. A fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine from Daniel Engber that looks at the increasing use of the Burmese Python (Python molurus bivitattus) as a laboratory animal, and the possibility that its extraordinary digestive system—which has to flip from inactive to a 50,000-calorie meal all at once—may help find a cure for diabetes.

J’y suis, j’y reste

“You’re from the city, aren’t you?”

That was the then-mayor of Shawville, watching me walk gingerly through the mud during the groundbreaking ceremony for what would soon become the village’s day care centre. It was the fall of 2003 and I was covering the event as a reporter for the local newspaper. For various reasons I lasted all of five months in that job, but it gave me a crash course in the town, the surrounding countryside and the MRC du Pontiac in general.

Yes, I was from the city—I grew up in suburban Winnipeg—but Shawville, a town of some 1,600 people, most of whom anglophone, about 75 km northwest of Ottawa, seemed somehow familiar. I spent a lot of my childhood staying with my paternal grandparents in Hartney, Manitoba, a village two thousand kilometres away and about one-third the size. But there were some similarities: both communities served as service centres for the surrounding farms. And both had demographics that tilted elderly. To me, it felt like moving to Shawville was like moving in with elderly relatives with whom you had to mind your manners and steer the conversation away from politics as much as possible, but apart from that you loved each other to bits.

Continue reading “J’y suis, j’y reste”

Are Conventions Necessary?

The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.

Last September, in a Patreon post about building bridges and equalizing power structures in arts communities, my friend Tim Cooper noted that the science fiction community does those sorts of things less well, partly because the work isn’t being done to the same extent, partly because it’s actively being opposed from some corners. But he had this to say about conventions:

I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.

Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?

Continue reading “Are Conventions Necessary?”

A Herpetological Roundup

Mating group of Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), Narcisse Snake Dens, May 5, 2014.
  1. Spring is here, and the garter snakes (Thamnophis) are busily mating away — and that means mating balls where as many as a hundred frenzied males may be trying to woo a single female snake. That frenzy may be harder on the males than the females: a new study found that telomere length — associated with stress — decreased with males as they aged, but did not do so with females. [Proc. R. Soc. B]
  2. Then again, it could be worse: a photographer caught a female Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) in the act of constricting and eating its mate.
  3. Speaking of constriction. Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis) are known for eating other snakes, and they’ve also been known to eat snakes longer than they are — including other constricting snakes. They do it by constricting harder — twice as hard as rat snakes. [Journal of Experimental Biology]
  4. Ontario has banned the hunting of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), a species that had previously been regulated as game wildlife (with seasons and bag limits). Conservationists have long argued that any take is unsustainable, and they’re right: turtles simply reproduce too slowly, and face too many other dangers (roadkill, nest predation) — they’re simply in too much trouble already.
  5. In other good news, the Arizona snake shot — allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — bill died in a tie vote in the state senate.
  6. Researchers at Grand Valley State University are monitoring a population of Eastern Massasaugas (Sistrurus catenatus); they hope to learn more to fight the onslaught of snake fungal disease, which is hitting the massasauga particularly hard.
  7. Oh, great: the purported medicinal properties of the Indian Sand Boa (Eryx johniihas led to a spate of poaching and smuggling, putting the species, which is protected in India, at greater risk of extinction.
  8. India is also home to the unusual shield-tailed snakes (Uropeltidae), which Andrew Durso calls the “Darwin’s finches” of snakes.
  9. This January a rare species of boa, Corallus cropanii, endemic to Brazil’s São Paulo state, was found alive for the first time since it was described in 1953. It’s otherwise known from only a handful of specimens.
  10. Cobra venom is largely neurotoxic — it shuts down a prey animal’s autonomic nervous system — but some cobra venoms have cytotoxic, or tissue-destroying, qualities, most famously the venoms of African spitting cobras. Cytotoxins are painful but not as lethal as neurotoxins, so you’d think that cytotoxic venoms in cobras developed as a defense mechanism. But it turns out that cytotoxins don’t correlate with spitting, but with spectacular hoods: the more brightly banded or coloured a cobra species’ hood, the more cytotoxins in the venom. [Toxins]

‘A Time Traveller from the Late 1980s’

Paul Wells, now back at Maclean’s, argues that Donald Trump is a hermit who has walled himself off from the rest of the world since the 1980s. This explains two rather odd things about the president that a lot of us have noticed: one, he spends an awful lot of time, even as president, at his own properties like Mar-a-Lago; and two, that his politics are decades out of date.

Trump’s public statements betray the effect of his extended hiatus from North American society. In a Republican candidates’ debate in March 2016, he listed Japan as one of the countries where the U.S. is “getting absolutely crushed on trade.” That hasn’t been true since before Bill Clinton was president. In his inaugural address, he painted an apocalyptic portrait of the United States — where “crime and gangs and drugs . . . have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” — even though crime today is much lower, in most jurisdictions and by most measures, than in 1990, or even in 2005.

These outbursts are worth the effort to understand because their author is now, at least on paper, the most powerful man in the world. They are best understood as the musings of an emissary from another era. Donald Trump is in effect a time traveller from the late 1980s, when crime in American cities was at record-high levels, racial tension was rampant, Japanese billionaires were buying up much of Manhattan and a much younger Donald Trump was building the collection of gold-plated safe houses in which he would hide for the next three decades, subsisting on well-done steaks, taco bowls and the time-clock adulation of lackeys and hirelings.

Wells goes on to compare Trump to a character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but the point is clear enough without the analogy.

The House of Binding Thorns

Sometimes the Law of Sequels does not apply. The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, is a better book than its predecessor, The House of Shattered Wings (which I reviewed in 2015). It may simply be that book two can get down to business now that the introductions are out of the way, but the characters, setting, motivations — everything seems clearer and in sharper focus. De Bodard has found her groove.

While The House of Binding Thorns can be read on its own without too much trouble, you’d do better to begin with The House of Shattered Wings. That book introduced us to a fin-de-siècle Paris blasted into ruins by a magical war, where powerful fallen angels command rival Houses, while an Annamite (Vietnamese) dragon kingdom lay hidden under the waters of the Seine.

The focus of Shattered Wings was on House Silverspires; in The House of Binding Thorns the action moves to House Hawthorn, where the angel essence addict Madeleine, whom we first met in Shattered Wings, is now back under the control and protection of the fearsome and malevolent Asmodeus. The textbook definition of Lawful Evil, Asmodeus is by turns horrific and charismatic, a problematic but compelling figure who steals every scene he’s in. He sends Madeleine as part of an embassy to the dragon kingdom under the Seine to arrange a political marriage with one of the dragon princes. Philippe, one of the protagonists of Shattered Wings, is also back, on a quest to recover his lost Isabelle, and we’re introduced to a couple of new protagonists: a dragon, Thuan, who has infiltrated Hawthorn to investigate the source of the angel essence the addiction to which is ravaging the kingdom; and Françoise, an Annamite in a relationship with Asomdeus’s sister, Berith.

The character threads — Madeleine’s, Philippe’s, Thuan’s and Françoise’s — are woven deftly together as de Bodard spins a cunning web of addiction, deception and intrigue involving factions within the dragon kingdom and Houses out in the banlieu. Schemes within schemes abound. Interpersonal drama, at the family and political level, is something de Bodard has always excelled at.

Binding Thorns explores colonial themes even more deeply than Shattered Wings, as the pantheons of implicitly Christian fallen and Vietnamese dragon kingdoms intersect with one another. It’s also a fairly explicit allegory of the Opium Wars, and a reminder that addiction is also a tool of control, although a certain aspect of Madeleine’s addiction was unconvincing (it occurs at the end, so: spoilers). All of which makes for a setting that feels breathtakingly real (if not necessarily alive, if you take my meaning), a world that exists beyond the storytelling façades. Combined with the intriguing plot and characters, and you have a book that is very much the total package.

The House of Binding Thorns is out today from Ace in North America and from Gollancz in the U.K. on Thursday. I received an electronic review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) via NetGalley.

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AE Is Resurrecting Itself

AE logoSince November 2014 I’ve been reviewing books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Last September their website went dark; a brief note said that the site had been compromised by hackers and would be back soon. Months passed, and people were starting to wonder if AE would ever be back. (Because I reviewed for them, I got a few emails about it.)

But last week they finally broke their silence: their front page now announces that they will be coming back. Now I’m told that the relaunch is still some time away — months, not weeks. (Remember: this is done in their spare time.) But when that does occur I’ll be back writing reviews and other nonfiction pieces for them.

(If nothing else, I’m glad not to have killed the magazine per the Waldrop rule: the last thing they published before the site went down was my review of Jo Walton’s Necessity.)