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1 April 2010 Snakes: Ecology and Conservation.
Harvey B. Lillywhite
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Snakes: Ecology and Conservation represents an intellectual outgrowth of the Snake Ecology Group, which periodically holds informal meetings and fosters the publication of books that aim to synthesize current knowledge and perspectives related to the ecology of snakes. This book follows two others—Snakes: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (1987), and Snakes: Ecology and Behavior (1993), and focuses on conservation. It reflects three goals of the editors and collective authors: to summarize current knowledge and concepts of ecology and conservation as related to snakes; to compile primary literature that can guide both new and established researchers; and to identify deficits in our knowledge of these subjects, thereby stimulating new and innovative research in an effort to advance understanding. Because the diversity and abundance of snakes are in decline, as with many other other vertebrate taxa, two other goals are implicit: namely, to enhance awareness of threats to snake populations, and to examine strategies that are available to counteract further population declines or extinctions.

Editors Stephen J. Mullin and Richard A. Seigel are snake ecologists known for promoting communication and synthesis of ideas among herpetologists. Leading snake biologists—including specialists in ecology, behavior, genetics, and evolutionary biology—have contributed 12 chapters to this volume. Collectively, these cover a breadth of topics and include relevant discussions of tools, modeling, and methodologies related to snake ecology and conservation. Many of the topics relate to broader conceptual issues and perspectives, but the presentation here is focused specifically on snakes. Covered also are the challenging problems of how we must address ophiophobia, design conservation programs, and promote the utility of snakes as indicator species for monitoring ecosystems and managing habitats and reserves. The disciplinary themes represented by the various chapters are tied to an underpinning belief that greater understanding of snake ecology at various scales from individuals to landscape will aid in the development of more effective conservation programs.


Twenty-four authors treat a range of relevant topics in 11 chapters (with an introduction and final chapter by Mullin and Seigel). These topics include (a) strategies for conservation (the editors); (b) methods for studying snake ecology and conservation, with focus on spatial, biophysical, and population ecology (Michael Dorcas and John Willson), modeling of snake distribution and habitat (Christopher Jenkins, Charles Peterson, and Bruce Kingsbury) and behavioral ecology (Patrick Weather-head and Thomas Madsen); (c) genetics, with a focus on population and conservation genetics (Richard King) and molecular phylogeography (Frank Burbrink and Todd Castoe); and (d) conservation strategies related to reproduction (Richard Shine and Xavier Bonnet), captive rearing and translocation (Bruce Kingsbury and Omar Attum), habitat manipulation (Kevin Shoemaker, Glenn Johnson, and Kent Prior), and educational tools for combating ophiophobia (Gordon Burghardt, James Murphy, David Chiszar, and Michael Hutchins). Steven Beaupre and Lara Douglas discuss the utility of snakes as indicators and monitors of ecosystem properties. Each of the chapters is well referenced, and there are both taxonomic and subject indices.

Several emergent concepts will be especially useful to readers of this book. First is the idea that snakes can be important as model organisms and are amenable to paradigms of research that contribute to the conceptual and methodological development of ecology and conservation biology. For example, research on snakes has contributed substantially to understanding energetic adaptation, evolution, and biodiversity. Snakes also have the potential to be model or indicator animals for elucidating the effects of environment-organism interactions on growth, reproduction, and other life-history parameters, and for demonstrating characteristics essential to the structure and resilience of regional biota. Snakes' low energy requirements and temperature sensitivity are exemplary model systems for investigating mechanistic responses to climate change at individual, population, community, or ecosystem scales. Some studies have used snakes for bioassessment, but resource managers unfortunately rarely use these data.

Historically, much has been learned about snake ecology through basic studies focused on single species and questions related to specific aspects of snakes' natural history (such as diet, population size, movements, etc). These studies have provided important information, but several of the current authors propose a new way forward. They emphasize the importance of innovative methodologies coupled with approaches that are based in clearly defined questions. Some examples include automated radiotelemetry and monitoring of snakes; carefully designed population studies with close attention to sampling schemes, spatial scales, robust design, viability analyses, and modeling approaches; the application of biophysical or geospatial modeling and statistical approaches to studies of snake distribution and habitat requirements; and habitat manipulation as part of conservation strategies. As a related theme, studies of multiple, rather than single, species will enable broader inferences to be made about ecological processes and conservation strategies at higher scales. Increasingly, studies of snake ecology and conservation require investigators to embrace multidisciplinary approaches and, at the very least, be aware of advances in a diversity of disciplines. Interdisciplinary communication is obviously critical to applied studies related to conservation. Once again, ophiophobia presents a challenging obstacle to such communication.

Another insight that readers gain from this book is how much remains to be discovered from carefully planned research. Although the understanding of the ecology of snakes has advanced greatly in recent years, accelerated in part by advances in technology, a vast diversity of snakes remains uninvestigated, especially in primitive taxa and in tropical environments. The authors discuss how many modeling and methodological approaches are underused, and they encourage researchers to embrace them. Various fields (e.g., genomic diversity analyses, geospatial modeling, adaptive management) appear to be wide open, as is developing linkages of these fields to conservation objectives.

One important aim of this book is to provide a guide for novice investigators, and this book will be useful in this respect. The information contained in its chapters ranges from discussion of philosophical issues to a specific recipe for preserving DNA from tissues collected in the field. In nearly all cases, the authors thoughtfully and carefully review the subject matter, and provide opinions about where the field of snake ecology should move.

Finally, there is welcome discussion by Seigel, Mullin, and others related to the difficulties of overcoming the negative attitudes that many people have toward snakes. Authors point out that negative public perceptions of snakes can decrease opportunities for research and diminish or eliminate the application of research to conservation. Clearly there is a need to prioritize research, promote awareness of the applied value of snakes, and emphasize to the public the many fascinating and positive aspects of snake biology. Public education programs have been shown to be useful in reducing wanton killing of snakes, yet detrimental activities such as rattlesnake roundups still continue. Ultimately, however, we are likely to be faced with the sobering conclusion that efforts directed to conservation of snakes might prove to be necessary for the conservation of other taxa.

Snakes: Ecology and Conservation provides readers with a comprehensive and useful overview of the methods for research on ecology of snakes and the application of such knowledge to the urgently needed conservation of these interesting and useful animals. The framework of chapters also provides a broad spectrum of guidelines and suggestions for future research. The book is interesting and well written, and I recommend it as a critical reference for anyone interested in the ecology, conservation, and management of snakes or other animals.

Harvey B. Lillywhite "Snakes: Ecology and Conservation.," BioScience 60(4), 315-317, (1 April 2010).
Published: 1 April 2010

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