Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hooray for herpetologists.

Review of Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist by Leslie Anthony. 2009 Greystone Books, Vancouver. 292 +xii pp. ISBN: 9781553652366

Disclosure: Leslie Anthony is a longtime friend. We shared a doctoral supervisor and office space for a number of years. Thus, I refer to him in this review mostly as "Les," rather than "Anthony" or "the author," because to my ear those sound silly. Our friendship also means there's no chance I'm gonna trash his book. I couldn't anyway. As every other review I've read points out, this is a great book.


When I was a child, a book that nurtured my burgeoning interest in herpetology was Carl Kauffeld’s Snakes: The Keeper and the Kept, which was at the time already somewhat outdated, but nonetheless an absorbing read about reptile hunting in various wilderness areas of the United States. I now find in searching my bookshelves that I have lost, perhaps gave away, that treasured work. When and where along the line did I make that mistake?

So there’s a gap in the library, but I think it has found a filler, a modern, relevant account of snake-hunting, and not limited to North American localities. Snake-hunting relevant? To what?

To just about everything it turns out. Or at least herpetology is. Nary an environmental issue is not in some way intertwined with reptiles and amphibians and measured by herpetologists.

In Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist, Leslie Anthony provides a highly entertaining, often hilarious and frequently poetic account of his life before, during, and post herpetology—although it becomes apparent that these are not clean-cut, fully differentiated categories. How exactly does one stop being a herpetologist? He left academia with a wealth of stories, enough for at least one book, but even then, in returning to his former colleagues during the writing of it, was pulled back into the cold-blooded octagon with its venomous inhabitants, and the reptiles too.

Settings include parochial and exotic, Ontario cottage country as well as Fiji, Finland, Viet Nam and Armenia, but the book is more than a herper’s adventure log. Intertwined throughout is the “ology,’’ the science, the reasons herpetologists do what they do. The history of biology, conservation biology, cellular genetics, ecology, physiology and much more are discussed as we are led on a branching, anastomosizing track, around the world and back over a pair of decades. My advice: when reading this book, sit next to an internet-connected computer loaded with Google Earth. You will want to see up close where the work, the play, and the totally unexpected are happening.

This brings to mind one element this book lacks that was present in Snakes: The Keeper and the Kept. Photos. As a kid, I poured over the pictures in that old book. A Trans-pecos Rat Snake! That musty black-and-white collection managed to thrill. I suppose, given the current vitality of the book-publishing industry, books containing series of plates are an endangered, if not extinct, species. Well, now we have the internet; it’s rare that one can’t quickly satisfy the need for an image of almost any animal, plant, place or person

Snakebit starts with a stroll back into childhood, a summer camp where the author was literally bitten, by a garter snake. In this chapter he describes the shift from being other than the natural world to of it. This, like other instances in the following chapters, should be happily familiar to many who eventually became professional biologists.

The second chapter gives a historical overview of understandings of what has been meant by “reptile” and “amphibian.” It recalls the early mainstay popular herpetological literature in a world long before the internet, and reveals the importance of museums in gathering nascent herpetologists together, the odd and the odder, sparking their networks, and providing an idea of where to go next.

Eventually, a child with an interest in biology may, circumstances allowing, “fall down the rabbit hole” into academia. Chapter 3 describes how a young amateur herpetologist morphs from summer field technician to graduate student studying a complex salamander breeding system. This chapter is perhaps the most technical, and for a stretch the personal story takes a backseat to the science. But to keep things lively, along the way we meet a variety of characters doing things that most would consider questionable at best, more likely plainly nuts. We learn that scientific rationale lurks behind the adventure and misadventure, and that there are meanings extending beyond snake or salamander, beyond herpetology. Falling through the ice of a frozen beaver pond is a small step in our ever-accumulating understanding of the planet and the place of humans within it.

From the cold north woods the book leaps to the South Pacific, a chapter that starts in a way that seems improbable, but turns out to be only the beginning of a pattern that leads to a realization: like snakes that appear on night-time roadways, herpetologists are everywhere. Furthermore, their shared, deep, specialized knowledge causes them to clump together irresistibly. This can happen at a beach resort in Fiji, or in an auditorium in Victoria BC. In this chapter the author crosses paths with Dr. Robert W. Murphy of the Royal Ontario Museum, a meeting that will influence both their lives for years to come.

Back to science for a bit. Because the fourth chapter covers a time of intense research (the author’s doctoral work), it contains considerable technical detail. There is a plus in this: it includes a very clear and important discussion of what amphibians are. The history of herpetology (and vertebrate taxonomy in general –but always hinging on the definitions of the herps) is a story of errors in delineation of groups. Les here provides a primer on upper-level amphibian taxonomy. Dry? Heck no. It’s wrapped in a story of grad-student adventure, with only a hint of the requisite drudgery and inscrutable arcana. This is real herpetology, ultimately linking the inscrutable arcana to something that will influence us all—global warming.

Next we learn that museums are not stodgy old depositories of the old and the dead. What they really are is the people who work within. Research museums are all about curators and students, technicians and support staff. The right mix of characters produces magic, with the right amount of mayhem. Such was Rommy! a now legendary rock opera-scientific presentation produced at the Royal Ontario Museum in the late 1980s, brainchild of Dr. Bob and written largely by Les. This chapter is about work, hijinx, and glory.

Les, searching.

As with many who have been graduate students of Bob Murphy (“Dr. Bob”), Les was soon led on his first foreign, potentially fatal journey, in his case to a barren, waterless island in the Gulf of California, a rock feared by locals and infested with rattleless rattlesnakes. But that is not the entirety of this story. Les artfully connects insular Mexican minutiae with larger scientific issues, such as the importance of lizards as models in biology, and the use of a relatively new approach called phylogeography, which combines molecular phylogenetic methods with hypotheses of geological history to investigate the distribution and relatedness of species.

Later, the author progresses beyond his PhD to another museum, the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal. There lurk more of the same sort (herpetologists), characters all, and dedicated to their research, some of which includes the hormone-changing effects of agricultural pesticides on amphibian development. Writ only slightly larger, what does this mean to human development? A lot.

In addition to present concerns over environmental pollution, Les’ experiences at McGill also take a foray into the deep past, involvement in a study of ancient fossilized amphibians, transitional creatures leading to reptiles —and here reptiles are defined, which is even trickier than defining amphibians. He leaps beyond the attentions of most neontologists (biologists who study living species) to include the importance of fossils in the definitions of what reptiles are – and aren’t. Then again, to keep the science from overwhelming, he throws in an account of an ill-fated field trip (herpetologists love field trips) in which an idiotic situation arises. Ill-informed townies interfere with and insult a respected senior palaeontologist going about his work. It’s tough being a scientist among muggles.

Keeping with museums, Les shows that museum-based research has global reach. The author’s life journey leaves behind personal difficulties and heads across the globe – again with Dr. Bob-- to the jungles of Viet Nam where “anything could be out there.” They are chasing and cataloguing biodiversity, a biological buzzword of the 90s, before it disappears. They are teamed with eminent, if crazy, Russian colleagues, and somehow return home in one piece from a land of cobras, kraits, corrupt officials and poachers.

Closer to home, Les returns to the garter snake, the creature that in childhood conscripted him, a snake so widespread, even in northern climes, that it is bound to be the first experience with snakes for many in North America. It isn’t a single snake, but rather a group – some ecological specialists, some generalists--that lend themselves well to many biological questions, in particular those related to being an ectothermic animal in a cold climate. It’s an animal that may seem commonplace enough to be boring, but how wrong. There is nothing that compares with a trip to garter snake central – the hibernacula at Narcisse Manitoba, where garter snakes are a tourist attraction, on the verge of being “appreciated to death.”

Nearing the end of the book, as if to re-examine himself as much as to continue a story, Les, now several years beyond a formal herpetological position, reengages with herpetologists, in vitro (a beer-soaked conference) and in vivo (the wilds). The conference, in still-ravaged New Orleans, is a congregation of hundreds of herpetologists, people he has known and who have known each other for decades. It is not entirely a genial meeting. Many years of reviewing one another’s manuscripts have led to rivalries close to enmity. Les presents himself as an outsider, a studier of herpetologists, which seems to confuse those still involved. There is much to mine at a herpetological conference, so many layers of weirdness, where you can guess one’s taxonomic specialty by the clothes and attitude. Even within the peculiarity of herpetologists in general, you can always find “a whole other level of weird.” But, as Les reveals, behind the alcoholism and general hubbub is a collection of individuals studying some of the more troubling ecological issues on the planet, in particular the loss of amphibian species, whether due to climate change or the spread of a lethal fungus Batrachochytrium, or both—and the ecological changes that will result or are resulting from amphibian declines.

Les has obviously not recovered. He still reads herpetological journals. While doing this in a coffee shop in Whistler, BC, he was approached by a stranger. “Is that Herpetologica you’re reading?” Shortly thereafter he found himself clambering up mountain streams, searching for tailed frogs. Herpetologists find each other. He also travelled to Canada’s desert, the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia’s interior, which is the home of several provincially endangered reptiles, including the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake and Desert Night Snake. It is also the home of an expanding wine industry, because of which hillside reptilian habitats are being pulverized for vineyards. You don’t have to travel to Viet Nam to witness the obliteration of biodiversity. It’s happening right here, right now.

The book ends on one last foreign trip with old friend Dr. Bob and his Russian and other colleagues. This part was weird for me to read, because I went salamander hunting with Les a few weeks apart on either end of this harrowing, literally gut-wrenching adventure. Thankfully, it all turned out fine, and the story serves to end the book neatly, seemingly closing the circle of his life as a herpetologist.

To that I say, Fat chance. It can’t be closed. When you are born a biologist, a naturalist, as connected to the non-human as the human world, you cannot hang up your hat. There are the animals, the wilds, and the other humans you join with in the joyful, dangerous unpredictability of field work, where age, gender, language, nationality and even mortality seem not to matter. We fall together with those from other cultures and countries. We understand each other. Our own kin don’t understand why we do what we do, why it’s important, but we unquestioningly do, and we recognize this understanding in each other.

If you are a herpetologist, or have ever considered being a herpetologist, or perhaps are in danger of commencing a long-term relationship with a herpetologist, or your child has herpetological leanings, you need to read this book.


Helen said...

Thanks for the review. I actually know a young guy who has herpetology in his sights. I've passed on your link.

plumcrazytreehugger said...

cannot WAIT to read that book!

Elizabeth Enslin said...

Sounds like a good read. Thanks for the review. I once dreamed of being a herpetologist (became a cultural anthropologist instead. Go figure). Now, I'm an amateur naturalist living part of the year among rattlesnakes and loving it.

Birthday Rattlesnake