Book Review: Turtles of the United States and Canada (2nd Ed.)

Turtles of the United States and Canada, second edition, by Carl H. Ernst and Jeffrey E. Lovich, Johns Hopkins University Press (www.press.jhu.edu), 2009, 827 pages, $98.00

Since its original publication in 1994, Turtles of the United States and Canada has stood the test of time as the go-to-guide to North American turtles. As a reference, it was unrivaled: the species accounts were thorough and well-researched; the photography was diagnostic and professional; and the range maps were postcard- (instead of postage stamp-) sized. But even a work of reference as ambitious as this eventually falls victim to obsolescence with the passing years. Such was the case after 15 years with the wax and wane of species ranges, strides in the field of genetics, and a growing body of cutting-edge scientific literature, uncited and collecting dust.

The second edition (2009) now weighing down the shelves of private and public libraries coast to coast marks Carl Ernst and Jeffrey Lovich’s return to update the opus they originally undertook with their late coauthor, Roger W. Barbour. Feeling the heft of this tome in your hands, thumbing through this OED-scale undertaking, their hard work clearly shows. Topping off at over 800 pages, the 58 species tackled in Turtles… 2009 are given the same regard they were in 1994, remastered to fit the evolving field of herpetology. Species accounts were updated to include the 2,000-plus recent studies awaiting assimilation; the inset color plates were replaced by color photographs throughout the semi-gloss pages; and the range maps were redrawn to reflect changes in distribution.

Flipping through the pages on the western pond turtle, for example (described here as the “Pacific pond turtle” after the common name recognized by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and ReptilesScientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico; the California Department of Fish and Game still recognizes the tried and true “western pond turtle”), Turtles… 2009 tackles everything from  the esoteric (karotype, fossil record) to the standard field-guide fare (distribution, geographic variation, confusing species, habitat) to the academic (behavior, reproduction, growth and longevity, diet and feeding behavior, predators and defense, populations), including remarks on the taxonomic turmoil surrounding its proper placement under the genera Actinemys, Clemmys, or Emys (here Ernst and Lovich adopt Actinemys).

Given its tremendous bulk, not to mention the limited number of turtles native to the Pacific Coast [a shaky nine species: the western pond turtle, Sonora mud turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense), painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), hawksbill seaturtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley seaturtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), green seaturtle (Chelonia mydas), loggerhead seaturtle (Caretta caretta), and leatherback seaturtle (Dermochelys coriaea)], much less California [now down to a meager seven: -Sonora mud turtle (presumed extirpated along the Colorado River), -painted turtle (Oregon/Washington)], this certainly won’t be something you slip into your hip pocket for a day hike. But as a work of reference, Turtles… 2009 is a work of art.

Point in case: the turtle that graces the book’s back dust jacket of the book is none other than a western pond turtle, a true accolade if ever there was one.

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