Book Review: Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California

Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California (Revised Edition), by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel M. McGinnis, UC Press (, 2012, 552 pages, $29.95.

It has been 40 years since there’s been a field guide published specific to the herpetofauna of California or the San Francisco Bay Region. The last such guide was Amphibians and Reptiles of California, the 31st guide in the University of California Press’ California Natural History Guides series by the esteemed herpetologist Dr. Robert C. Stebbins (whose memoirs continue to be featured here in the pages of (bio)accumulation). At long last, the wait is over.

Using the 1972 Amphibians and Reptiles of California as a springboard, Dr. Stebbins teamed with herpetologist Dr. Samuel M. McGinnis to bring California’s lone herpetology field guide into the 21st Century. In some ways this could be seen as a trimmed down, California edition of Stebbin’s 2003 A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (3rd edition), which tackled the 280 species of salamanders, frogs and toads, turtles, lizards, and snakes of the western United States, Canada, and Baja California, or perhaps a hybrid of his 1972 and 2003 field guides combined. But you are misguided (or desk bound) if you think that’s a fault. Keep in mind that 167 of those western herp species – nearly 60 percent! – call California home, and only 123 of those herps were treated in the 1972 guide. An updated guide to the Golden State’s shell-bound, slithery, and slimy inhabitants was long overdue.

How do these guides compare? As did its predecessors, Stebbins & McGinnis 2012 helps guide the modern herpetologist through chapters on wildlife observation and photography, the capture (and release) of herps in the wild, and herpetological husbandry. New, however, are chapters describing the evolutionary origins of amphibians and reptiles, the geographic distribution of herps in California, and the decline of amphibian and reptile populations.

Stebbins and McGinnis 2012 depart from earlier Stebbins field guides by imbedding Stebbins’ detailed illustrations and a range map within each species account, rather than as inset plates or stand alone maps. The range maps are as simple as they were previously, but larger now that their breadth is limited to California. The illustrations of amphibian larvae and eggs are also tucked within each of their respective species accounts, keeping everything neatly bundled together. And although the 2012 guide has brought back the checklist of California amphibian and reptile species, gone is the key to salamander, frog and toad, turtle, lizard, and snake morphologic traits illustrated in part in Stebbins 1972 and expanded upon in the endpapers of Stebbins 2003 that has proved so handy over the years.

Figure 1. A comparison of Stebbins’ field guides over the years.

Where the guide makes strides is in each species account. Previously, species were afforded a page or two of text describing miscellany natural history notes. Now, with the scope focused solely on California species, each account has been beefed up to include the author’s experiences and observations embedded in the descriptions. With only 167 species to illuminate (and ruminate on), the typical species account has filled out into as many as four or more pages of telling observations, remarks, and asides. Rare are the 1 page descriptions.

Despite the herpetological community’s expected enthusiasm over this newest Stebbins, passing the guide around with colleagues brought to light some of the guides’ shortcomings. Nowadays, in an age when Google Earth and GIS are such commonplace tools, the rudimentary range maps could have been dressed up with a topographic map, county lines, and major rivers, and given an entire page. As it stands now, each map – though larger than they were previously – is still just a state silhouette with a Rorschach blot to demarcate each species’ distribution.

Too, the taxonomy is unclear. Whereas Stebbins & McGinnis 2012 conform to recognizing, for example, the western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) and its former subspecies, the northwestern (A. m. marmorata) and southwestern (A. m. pallida) pond turtles – both subsumed in 2005 after the identification of four unique clades instead – they inexplicably dismiss the California legless lizard’s recognized subspecies, the silvery (Anniella pulchra pulchra) and black (A. p. nigra) legless lizards, with hardly any mention, instead lumping the pair. Admittedly, taxonomic nomenclature and the recognition of new species is in flux more so today than ever before. Much like the the drop in resale value after you drive a new car off the lot, the taxonomy in your average field guide today likely expires as soon as it goes to press. Still, even though Stebbins and McGinnis proffer they made every attempt to keep consistent with the herpetological zeitgeist rather than be adherents to this or that organization’s checklist, an explanation here and there would have helped clear the air.

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