Amphibians and Reptiles: A Natural History of the British Herpetofauna
Amphibians & Reptiles - 11k by Trevor Beebee and Richard Griffiths
pub. HarperCollins Publishers, 2000
Paperback, 270 pages, 19.99
[HB version is available priced 30.00]
ISBN 0 00 220084 8

'Amphibians and Reptiles' is one of HarperCollins New Naturalist Library series, and in the Editor's preface the publishers explain that because of the recent growth in knowledge about reptiles and amphibians in Britain they felt it appropriate to produce a new book on the subject. The contribution of amateurs monitoring 'in the field' and their help in survey work is acknowledged, and interestingly the authors say that the amateur is now more important than ever.

To begin with, this is a learned publication suited to professionals and students of zoology, biology, natural history and conservation, rather than armchair and picture-book nature lovers. Picture content in 'Amphibians and Reptiles' is more practical and illustrative, as opposed to providing lots of glossy specimen shots.

The book's chapters cover the natural history of Newts, Frogs and Toads, Lizards, Snakes and Chelonians (turtles to you and I), all of which make up the scientific discipline known as herpetology.

The opening chapter reviews amphibians and reptiles in Britain, and the biogeography of our islands. There are mentions of carbon dating of Natterjack Toad fossils from Devon which are 11,000 years old, while the science of DNA testing is revealing interesting data. For example, the natterjack population on the Irish Sea coast of NW England, and those in East Anglia and the South East, are genetically very different. It is fascinating how such high-tech sciences have entered the world of natural history where only a hundred years ago Victorian scientists and their amateur counterparts could only peer at specimens with magnifying glasses and microscopes.

There's a short but fascinating section on the historical aspect of these species in Britain's history. The Anglo Saxons used words like 'frogga' and 'froska' for frogs, and 'tadde' for toad. Shakespeare's Macbeth gets a mention [the three witches and their toads, remember?], but the authors point out that some species of amphibians and reptiles were believed to have curative properties. Bringing us up to date the authors review British herpetology in the 20th century, and inform us how the study of amphibians and reptiles has become a significant scientific discipline.

Each of the sections on specific species provides a review of the habitats, distribution, life history, reproduction and behaviour. There are lots of distribution charts and in the case of newts a diagram of the courtship sequence.

Like many scientific disciplines there are sometimes sub-surface battles between academics. The case of the Pool Frog [Rana lessonae] appears to be one of the bones of contention within Herpetolgy - is it a native, or an introduction?

The section on Lizards will put everyone right on the slow worm [Anguis fragilis]. It is not a serpent but a legless lizard. Now you know.

Those with a phobia about snakes will be pleased to know that less than 20% of all known species are venemous, our very own Adder [Vipera berus] being one of them.

The chapter on Chelonians reveals that the Leatherback turtle, which is found seasonally around the British Isles, can descend to a depth of 1,200 metres, with the largest specimen ever recorded being found beached in Wales. It measured 2.9m in length! The authors point out that finding Leatherbacks is an art, akin to finding a needle in a haystack, there possibly only being 40,000 left in the world.

Which brings us to the final chapter of the book, on Conservation. Here the authors reflect on the last 50 years of industrialisation and urbanisation in Britain, and recent moves to restore amphibious and reptilian populations. A series of pictures show some individual initiatives, such as the excavation of a Natterjack pond in Cumbria, a toad tunnel across a road, and rescuing crested newts from a pond due to be turned into development land. The authors conclude that the future existence of Britain's hepterofauna lies very much in the balance.

Conclusion. This book contains a wealth of information for those working in, or studying, the field of herpetology and herpetofauna, and also for keen natural history enthusiasts. The depth of the content is unsuited to readers who prefer not to read in-depth about a subject, although the content is not heavily scientific and laden with jargon, and is easy to read.

Other titles in the New Naturalist Library:
Lichens by Oliver Gilbert

Copyright © 2000