I’ve reviewed a couple of books from Pelagic Publishing recently (the last one was Bo Boelens et al‘s highly enjoyable – The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians), and it’s no coincidence then that Pelagic asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing a new title: Amphibians and reptiles – Naturalists’ Handbooks 31 (A&RNH31) which goes on sale today.

Not to be confused in any way with Collins’ New Naturalist series (which were intended as introductions to a topic but are now recognised as ‘the last word’ on a given subject and are as wordy and in-depth as that implies), the Naturalists’ Handbooks are intentionally (I imagine anyway) far more approachable. This is the first in the series of thirty-one titles that I’ve read, but given that A&RNH31 is extremely approachable, while still scholarly and authoritative, that must be the case.

Now, I know very little about amphibians or reptiles (I was a ‘birder and nothing else’ for decades I’m afraid) so how am I in any way qualified to comment on A&RNH31? Interestingly this volume arrived with almost perfect timing. A neighbour, who’s a professional ecologist, asked a few months ago whether I’d be available to work with him on several different newt surveys (torch surveys along ditches in the main, working under his licence, and not handling any animals for those ecologists reading this who may wonder). There may be some additional work checking refugia, as well, and maybe I could come with him on bottle surveys?

I’m up for virtually anything, especially if it means I may get paid for it, but I don’t want to a) do anything illegal, or b) risk hurting any animal in any way. I had no idea what a bottle survey was, was reasonably confident I could ID our native newts but wasn’t certain what a refugia was (though I assumed it would be corrugated steel sheets or squares of material), and just what was the law regarding amateurs doing surveys anyway? Well, a read of A&RNH31 and I had all the answers I could have wanted – and plenty of answers to questions I hadn’t thought of to ask (had Pelagic just published a Naturalists’ Handbook on Dormice this review would have been very different I can tell you).

Written by Prof Trevor Beebee, this book (and perhaps the whole series?) is subtitled ‘Ecology and Identification’, and the descriptor Handbook is entirely accurate too. Starting with a discussion about the differences between Amphibians and Reptiles (there are many despite the fact they are historically often ‘lumped’ etc), A&RNH31 covers everything from ‘Basic biology’ and ‘Ecology and conservation’ through to ‘Survey and monitoring’ and ‘Working with amphibians and reptiles’. The text is thorough, yet – as I said – approachable. I am to mathematics what Kim Jong-un is to parliamentary democracy, but even I could just about understand the sections on statistics. Which is quite a tribute to Trevor Beebee’s skills at explaining the difficult to a complete dunce. There are also several pages pf plates which help identify the UK’s amphibians and reptile species pictorially.

I have to say that even if I hadn’t been on the verge of taking the plunge (not literally, hopefully) by starting ditch surveys, I would have found A&RNH31 extremely interesting and worth reading. I’m not going to claim that having read A&RNH31 I am now an ecologist with comparable knowledge to a university graduate (heaven forbid), but I do now know one heck of a lot more about both our native and introduced amphibians and reptiles than I did a month ago.

And the book has inspired me to look far more closely at the newts, toads, and frogs that we get in our own garden (and in our house: our back door fits its frame about as well as a rapper’s trousers fits his). Again that’s mostly down to the Prof’s approach. The text gives answers, but asks many questions too. What can amateurs contribute to the knowledge bank? Why do ‘entire cohorts of tadpoles sometimes disappear without apparent reason’?’ What are Grass Snakes looking for when they hut in small ponds? What environmental triggers cause Slow Worms to risk predation and hunt during the day? The possibilities of further study are – it seems – almost endless.

A word too on the way that all this information and questing is presented. Pelagic books are – in my admittedly somewhat limited experience of them – beautifully put together, printed extremely legibly, and very logically arranged. A&RNH31 inspires confidence in the way a good text-book should. I did wonder (before reading it, I should quickly say) just who this book was targeted at, but having read it there’s no doubt it clearly goes beyond those wanting just a simple ID book with a few good stories in it. If you’re in the market for a ‘proper’ look at these often neglected species, though, then this is a superb primer. And if you are at all likely to be wandering around the countryside with a torch then this is a £19.99 investment I would enthusiastically recommend!

As a final thought, and this genuinely isn’t meant as a hint for more books in any way, if A&RNH31 is at all typical of the series, I would really love to get my hands on eg Hoverflies (NH5), Plant Galls (NH17), or Insects on Dock Plants (NH26), any of which would come in very handy as I continue my (amateur) studies here at Great Chalfield. They are also titles that the fanatical birder in me wouldn’t have even thought about owning a decade ago: thankfully British naturalists have never been so blinkered, and thankfully there are publishers like Pelagic putting their collective wisdom into print.


Paperback: 170 pages | Publisher: Pelagic Publishing (1 July 2013) | ISBN-10: 1907807454
ISBN-13: 978-1907807459 | Product Dimensions: 20.2 x 14.8 x 1 cm

Buy this book from www.nhbs.com


About the Author:

  • Trevor Beebee’s interest in amphibians was triggered, at age 11, by a chance visit to a pond near his home on the outskirts of Manchester. Two years later he moved to Surrey and encountered reptiles on the surrounding heath; so the scene was set of a lifetime of fascination with all the British species. Trevor subsequently obtained a degree in Biological Sciences at The University of East Anglia, followed by a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Sussex, before taking up a lectureship at Sussex and in 2003 becoming professor of molecular ecology there. Over the years he pursued a combined interest in research and conservation, mostly concerning amphibians (especially natterjack toads) but also with some work on reptiles. In the latter period Trevor became especially concerned about genetic aspects of conservation and the risks of population isolation and inbreeding depression. He has published over 150 scientific papers, more than 30 articles and several books on amphibians and reptiles including The Natterjack Toad, Frogs and Toads, Ecology and Conservation of Amphibians and, with Richard Griffiths, the most recent New Naturalist volume (Amphibians and Reptiles) on these intriguing animals. He has a longstanding connection (since 1960) with the British Herpetological Society and served at various times as editor of its scientific journal, its chairman and its president. Trevor has been a trustee of the charity Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (previously called the Herpetological Conservation Trust) since its inception in 1989 and was awarded the Peter Scott Memorial Award by the British Naturalists’ Association in 2009 for contributions to amphibian conservation. He retired to live in Somerset in 2012.