There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters. They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.
One of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region.1 More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.
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.
Part of a series of field guides published by the University of Georgia Press (similar guides to lizards, turtles, frogs and toads and salamanders are also available), Snakes of the Southeast first came out in 2005. Its first edition sold some 25,000 copies (one of them to me). A revised second edition, which came out in October 2015, provides some minor updates but leaves most of the book unchanged.
The second edition has some new (and better) photos (the Yellow Rat Snake on the cover of the first edition has been replaced by a Florida Kingsnake), but for the most part the photography is the same. The taxonomy of several species has been updated (or at least referred to in the species descriptions), though the authors retain the classic subspecies of the rat snake because the public can, you know, actually identify them. Snake names are more often one word than two (“garter snake” is now “gartersnake” and so on), which I don’t agree with (but I’ll never win that argument).
Otherwise the text is little changed; of the species descriptions, that of the important and threatened Eastern Indigo Snake has been revised the most. There’s also a new entry for the Kirtland’s Snake, owing to a single sighting in northern Tennessee in 2012. But the biggest change since the first edition is the expansion of the chapter on introduced species, which now has full entries for the Brahminy Blind Snake, Burmese Python, Boa Constrictor and African Rock Python (the first edition had a paragraph on each of the first two snakes only).
On the one hand this means that people who already own the first edition really don’t need to spring for the second. It’s not that dated yet. On the other hand, the willingness of Gibbons, Dorcas and the University of Georgia Press to keep the book up to date is a very good sign. Field guides can fall out of date if not maintained (see, for example, Audubon’s: my wife’s copy was printed in 2000 but uses 1970s-era taxonomy); I’m glad to see that this one stands a chance of keeping up.
I received an electronic review copy of the second edition of this book via NetGalley.