Amphibians and Reptiles of La Selva, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean Slope: a Comprehensive Guide . Guyer, C., and M. A. Donnelly . 2004 . The University of California Press , Berkeley , CA . 307 pp . ( 299 +viii ). $24.95 (paperback) . ISBN 0-520-23759-5 .

La Selva is a private reserve located in the lowland tropical wet forests of northern Costa Rica. The region is home to a thriving research station and is one of the most intensively studied areas in Central America. As such, researchers, students, and the interested tourist will welcome the addition of a comprehensive herpetological field guide to their library. In areas with such great biodiversity, a guide that limits the species by range can be helpful—especially if one is not adept at making one's way through the hundreds of gloriously thorough, but heavy, pages of Jay Savage's (2002) tome.

Amphibians and Reptiles of La Selva is a well-written, easily navigable guide summarizing the authors' combined 40 years of research. The book is divided into a concise introduction covering the habitat, history, and conservation efforts of La Selva followed by one section on amphibians and one on reptiles. In the latter two sections, the class descriptions and characteristics common to that group are summarized, concluding with a dichotomous key to the orders of the appropriate class. Subsequent taxonomic groups are similarly treated, with keys down to species level. The keys are clarified, when appropriate, with line drawings.

The keys are fairly easy to use, and when possible, are based on easily observed characteristics. A sample data sheet toward the end of the guide ensures that the user notes the necessary physical features. For those less familiar with morphological jargon the glossary is indispensable. The well-made keys are undoubtedly the best way to identify species, but they are of limited use without the specimen in hand, as is often the case with venomous snakes. The authors concede, when describing the features common to the Viperidae (pit vipers and true vipers), “if you are close enough to the animal to use these characteristics for identification purposes, you are probably too close.” Fortunately, the two poisonous families are represented by only a half dozen or so species, although caution should also be used with all unfamiliar species because even some colubrids are fairly venomous.

Many users will at some point resort to flipping through the photographs that vary greatly in quality. Some are gorgeous, with rich color, good composition, and perfect exposure. Other photographs feature distracting backgrounds that include the unfortunately placed flip-flop or bandaged knee; have lizards in compromising positions; or are simply overexposed. Common names are provided for photo identification, whereas scientific names might have been useful, especially when many species are referred to in English and Spanish.

I have always preferred paintings to photographs in field guides. Knowledgeable illustrators can average their experience of the idiosyncrasies of each species. They can also control for light, position, and even exaggerate key characteristics. However, illustrating hundreds of species for a field guide is not always feasible, and for this one, users will have to be content with the keys and extensive and engaging written descriptions. Arguably, the information provided in the guide should more than make up for what is lacking in some of the photographs.

Ultimately, Amphibians and Reptiles of La Selva is a useful, practical guide and a good read. It is definitely destined for the kind of abuse all great field guides face. Numerous copies of the guide will be dropped in the mud, dog-eared, annotated ruthlessly, and smeared with the forgotten banana in the field pack until almost unreadable, at which point we will be eagerly awaiting the next edition.

Literature Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Literature Cited
  • Savage, J. M. 2002. The amphibians and reptiles of Costa Rica: a herpetofauna between two continents, between two seas. University of Chicago Press, Chicago .