The Plight of Serpents


Snakes: Ecology and Conservation . Mullin, S. J., and R. A.Seigel , editors. 2009. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY. (xiv+365) pp. $60.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8014-4565-1.

Snakes are a particularly intriguing group of animals, not only because they have unique morphologies and many distinctive life histories and behaviors but also because they are simultaneously fascinating and dreadful. Snakes are a widespread and ecologically successful group and are one of the most prominent animals in the constellation of human mythologies. The snake is ingrained in our psyche, yet until relatively recently we knew relatively little about snakes. There was even a feeling among some herpetologists in the 1990s (only partially facetious) that snake biologists had “lizard envy” because this sister group of squamates was generally easier to study and was being proclaimed by some as the model organisms for herpetological research. Although snakes are nearly ubiquitous cultural icons, like many other taxonomic groups they are affected by the degradation of our biosphere, and there is a growing need to devote effort to the conservation of snakes and other animals that Linnaeus once famously referred to as “foul and loathsome” but which hold a special place in the ecosystems of our world and in the hearts of many biologists.

Many of the world's leading experts on snakes contributed to Snakes: Ecology and Conservation, and the book is an admirable review of the biology of snakes and serves as a foundation for their conservation and management. Mullin and Seigel build on two previous volumes on the ecology, evolution, behavior, and conservation of snakes, which Seigel and others coedited. The first two books were authoritative and wide-ranging treatments of snake biology, and each had a single chapter on snake conservation, both by Ken Dodd. Dodd (1987) reviewed what was known globally about the conservation status of snakes and made a brief foray into the topic of biological considerations for snake conservation. In 1993 Dodd built on this latter theme and provided a more detailed review of the conservation biology of snakes. Now, after more than 15 years, Mullin and Seigel and contributors have expanded the treatment of snake conservation with considerable new and updated information.

Everyone who works with or has a strong interest in snakes should buy this book. Undoubtedly the volume will be a standard reference for some time to come and will play an important role in building the tool kits of those interested in the conservation of snakes. Chapter topics are broad and include innovative techniques for the study of snakes, molecular phylogeny and conservation genetics, the application of studies of snake behavior and reproduction to conservation and management, the use of intensive management (captive breeding and repatriation), and management of snake habitat and modeling of landscape approaches. Snake conservationists usually start out at a disadvantage because of the widespread animosity toward snakes among the general public. The chapter by Burghardt et al. discusses the basis of such ophiophobia and mitigation of its effects.

As a herpetologist who does not work much with snakes, I found the book enjoyable and informative because it brought me up to date with the large body of research that has been conducted on snakes over the last two decades. Most of the chapters address topics of both general and specific interest in which snakes are the subject of case studies, so the book does have a wider appeal to students of conservation biology. That is its strength. Its main limitation in my view is that the reader is not presented a broader perspective of snake conservation in the sense of how snakes are faring worldwide or what efforts are underway to conserve highly endangered groups of snakes. Throughout the book, the motivation for conservation of snakes is an underlying assumption that is not made explicit. I think a review chapter on the status of snakes and threats they face worldwide would have been a welcome addition.

One of the reasons for beginning this series of books in the 1980s was the scattered state of information on snake biology. A similar situation exists today with snake conservation. There is no one source that not only delves into the depths of the ecology, behavior, and genetics of snakes and how these factors influence management and conservation efforts (which this book admirably does), but also examines the main threats to snakes and how to reduce them. What are the challenges for people working for the conservation of critically endangered groups, such as the vipers in the Caucasus region of Asia or some of the island snakes endemic to the Caribbean or Philippines?

My comments do not detract from the quality of the chapters in this book, but perhaps instead speak to my desire for a future volume that reviews and synthesizes these other important aspects of snake conservation. Nevertheless, Snakes: Ecology and Conservation provides an excellent and up-to-date account of the research on snakes and provides a broad biological foundation for the conservation of this unique group of animals.

Editor's Note: John Thorbjarnarson, a world-class herpetologist and conservationist valued by people from China to Brazil and a treasured colleague at the Wildlife Conservation Society, died suddenly in February. He will be sorely missed by many.