Why Herptiles? Some recent books…

If you’re like me, you might never have really wondered why the word herptile was invented. After all, “Reptiles and Amphibians” is easy enough to say. And besides, “reptiles” aren’t such a simple class, anyway: lots of reptiles have no business being included in the class Reptilia. Until recently, though, no one like me has really had to care about this, because until recently there hasn’t been anything like the slew of high-quality books about the herpetofauna of North America, and particularly of the Southeast, where I live, that has recently hit the market.Perhaps I should back up for a minute and define things. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. Herpetofauna is the word denoting the members of the classes Reptilia or Amphibia. So I suppose we do need a word like “herptile”; who wants to say “member of the class Reptilia or Amphibia” when they run across an unknown herp?

That sounds great, except that the two classes that comprise the group aren’t really so well understood. For instance, “reptiles” is not really a valid scientific category anymore. My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition) gives a definition that seems pretty authoritative:

Any of a class (Reptilia) of air-breathing vertebrates that include the alligators and crocodiles, lizards, snakes, turtles, and extinct related forms (as dinosaurs and pterosaurs*) and are characterized by a completely ossified skeleton with a single occipital condyle, a distinct quadrate bone usu. immovably articulated with the skull, ribs attached to the sternum, and a body usu. covered with scales or bony plates.

The problem with this definition, as authoritative as it seems, is that it’s wrong. Or at least, it doesn’t take into account what we’ve learned about the members of this class of air-breathing vertebrates in the past, oh, twenty years. For one thing, it ignores some major anatomical differences among the so-called reptiles (this has been known for a very long time; I’m getting to the more recent stuff).

Turtles, one of the most recognizable “reptiles,” for example, have anapsid skulls: there is no opening in the skull for the muscles that move the jaws. They go around, rather than through, the skull. Most other reptiles are either synapsid or diapsid, with one or two openings in the skull bones for the muscles and tendons to travel through. That turtles, almost alone among reptiles, have anapsid skulls leads one to wonder whether they should really be included in the class. But there’s an even better argument for removing turtles from the ranks of the class Reptilia: they haven’t shared a common ancestor with Any Other Reptile for about 300 million years.

Now, multicellular life has existed on this planet for about 600 million years, give or take. To have diverged completely from all other members of your class before the first dinosaurs even walked the planet? That’s a pretty strong argument that you’re not really a reptile…

But that’s all neither here nor there. On to The Point:

A fabulous series on the herpetofauna of the Southeast from the University of Georgia press is about to see publication of its fourth volume, Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast. Due to be published at the end of June, this one will explore the relatively poor lizard fauna of the region. The previous three volumes (Snakes of the Southeast, Turtles of the Southeast, and Frogs and Toads of the Southeast) are absolutely marvelous. They are large-ish books, not field guides, but they aren’t gigantic tomes that resist being pulled off the shelf, either. Attractive photographs, clear explanations of the biology and range of the creatures; these are nice books, and I look forward with great anticipation to the next volume.

Another new book is Lang Elliott‘s Frogs and Toads of North America, the follow-up to his earlier (2004) Calls of Frogs and Toads, which covered Eastern and Central North America. This new volume covers the entirety of North America (north of Mexico), which increases the species coverage considerably (from 40 in the first volume to 101 species in the new one). There are 2 CDs of songs and calls as well. Whereas the first book felt like a CD with a booklet attached, the new book feels like a field guide (although it’s slightly too large to be a real field guide) with a couple of excellent CDs attached.

One of the things I particularly like about Elliott’s new book is the list of genera in the front, so you can get a quick overview of the number and taxonomy of North American anurans (frogs and toads); the books from U of Georgia P don’t have that field-guide mentality, although in most other respects they are superb.

These new books will finally allow me to “retire” my Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida, a nice, but now dated 3-volume effort by Ray Ashton from the mid-1980s. Those books are still good to check out, but these new efforts are much, much prettier, and more up to date taxonomically as well.

Still the best read ever about the frogs and toads of North America, though, is Mary C. Dickerson’s The Frog Book, an absolute classic from 1906, reprinted by Dover in 1969. Hundreds of pages of life stories and behavior; the descriptions of abundance will seem like outrageous exaggerations in our frog-poor world. The frogs are disappearing rapidly; we need to do something.

Frogs and toads depend on water for their survival; when they start dying off, the first thing I worry about is the quality of the water…

*Even the dictionary knows that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. So let’s move on, people.