American Snakes

While reading Sean P. Graham’s American Snakes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), I suddenly realized that most of the snake books in my library are now at least a generation old. That’s a function of my buying most of them in a burst of enthusiasm around 20 years ago. It was easy for me to assume that I’d read everything there was to read at the subject, at least at the level at which I was capable of reading (any further, and I’d have to take a degree in the subject). But herpetology has not stood still in the ensuing decades: there have been new studies, and new discoveries—and new people doing it. Graham, an assistant professor at Sul Ross State University in Texas, is very much a member of a new generation of herpetologists, and American Snakes very much reflects that fact.

At the same time, American Snakes echoes at least one earlier work from a generation ago. Harry W. Greene’s Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature (University of California Press, 1997) is now regarded as a classic of the field, and combines exquisite photography with keen insights and a prose style that frankly had no business being within a hundred miles of a biology department. American Snakes consciously follows in Greene’s footsteps, but it is self-consciously a smaller work. Graham’s prose is more accessible than elegant, which is not a bad thing. Latin names are used sparingly, which is good; the herpetological habit of combining snake names into one word (gartersnake, cornsnake, ratsnake) is followed, which isn’t. (And yes, I’m aware I’m a lonely holdout on this issue.)

And American Snakes does what you’d expect: it talks about American snakes, to the exclusion of snakes from elsewhere. This has some implications, particularly when surveying the various snake families, especially snake families with little to no American representation. But it also means that this isn’t simply another big snake book with pretty snake pictures whose text will be ignored nine times out of ten. American Snakes is actually about something: snakes in an American context. It celebrates the American-ness of American snakes: their uniqueness, their diversity, their regional specialization, their integration with their surrounding ecologies.

In the process he makes some statements that are more true in an American context than they are globally: that snakes are, generally speaking, not dangerous. “Most American snakes are harmless tubes of meat,” he declares; and even the venomous snakes are profoundly reluctant to bite: “there seems to be no limit to the generosity and patience of venomous snakes toward humans.” Snakes are cryptic and prefer to hide rather than confront: a truth that those of us who’ve known snakes all our lives are familiar with.

In fact, snake behaviour is a major focus of this book. Graham looks closely at snakes’ daily and seasonal routines. They don’t just sit in snakey spots waiting to be found. They migrate from hibernation to foraging grounds, they spend different times of the day in different spots. They’ve got shit to do, in other words. An obvious point to make, but one that has been very difficult to conduct research on: snakes are good at not being found, and tracking generally means implanting radio transmitters. Research is another major focus, especially current research. And researchers: American Snakes has a number of short profiles of researchers new and old, some I’ve heard of, some I haven’t. They remind the reader that science is a practice, and there are practitioners. (More than a few are now women, though the demographics remain pretty white.)

The results of that research provided some details about snakes that were revelations to me. I did not know, for example, that mud and rainbow snakes attended their nests, that cottonmouths are basically carrion-eating garbage disposals, or that glossy and crayfish snakes can constrict their crustacean prey. Or that octopus predate on yellow-bellied sea snakes. Or that red-shouldered hawks were major snake predators (otherwise I’d have been a lot less welcoming to the pair that’s been hunting around our home). And I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered reading that the bright colours of western subspecies of the common garter snake were a signal to predators that they’d accumulated toxins from the newts they fed on. All of which to say that I started messing with snakes forty years ago, and I still learned things from this book.

After a pessimistic chapter on invasive species that focuses on Burmese pythons in Florida (“It’s all python country now”), with the worrying revelation that they can handle cooler temperatures than initially expected, and can move further north than first hoped, Graham closes with a chapter on conservation, with surprisingly positive stories of efforts that are showing some success: the end of rattlesnake roundups, the protection of ridge-nosed rattlesnakes, the appearance of the Orianne Society. It’s an optimism I might not have expected to see a generation ago, and certainly not a century ago, when you could get a bounty for each rattlesnake or water snake you killed. Just a bit of evidence that the ground continues to move under our feet; that the long bois and danger noodles have a bit more of a chance than they used to.

American Snakes
by Sean Graham
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1 Feb 2018
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