Exotic Amphibians and Reptiles - New Book

Martin Nowak

Mar 23, 2018
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Trussville, AL
A new book has just been published: "Exotic Amphibians and Reptiles of the United States" by Walter E. Meshaka, Jr. et.al.


There is little doubt that state authorities, game and fish departments, and universities will use the contents of this book to promote their anti-reptile keeper agendas. While purported causes for exotic and invasive populations are listed in many causal terms, the authors cite reptile keeping and the pet industry as the main culprits. The reader should carefully note pages 10-11 narrative about exotic species and four "preventive measures" are listed.
In the narratives for each species, the authors indicate some "exotic populations" are resultant from 'authorities' deliberate releases of species to control insect predation on agricultural flora. There are also a few suggestions that some exotic populations are a result of academic activity and / or deliberate release by universities. The semantics in this writer's opinion however, are "hard on reptile keepers and soft on releases by academia, agriculture, and game and fish authorities". In many cases the exotic populations are simply cited by location and no cause is attributed. In some cases the authors note DNA studies have shown in part the origins of some populations. Omitted are comments about reintroduced populations by 'authorities' that differ genetically from prior natural / native populations. The authors did not create common nomenclature for causes of exotic populations. For example: "human mediated, in commerce, deliberate release, incidental release, human consumption, accidental, escape, escape from authorities, weather, stowaway, human activity, in with other frogs, fish bait, in plants, in soil" and more. On page 82 it is noted the Florida Softshell population in Cameron Parish Louisiana was a result of "incidental release from Florida stock from West Palm Beach, Florida, brought over in the 1970's for culture studies". What does this even mean? The term "deliberate release" is associated with reptile keepers and "incidental release" associated with academia. And so forth. It may be the book's list of exotic populations is not complete. Each section has an invited introduction. Readers will judge the fairness and accuracy of these narratives.
To his credit, McCallum's narrative notes the vast numbers of non-native fish introductions across the U.S. by game and fish authorities to stimulate fishing revenue and tourism. Causal factors are not fully vetted; likely to assign greater weight to the pet industry and reptile keepers. Natural mediated populations of exotic populations are ignored; including many parallel examples among birds and other fauna and flora. Parallel examples from agriculture are not included such as aquaculture of non-native crayfish and fish. Yes, this is a book about exotic reptiles and amphibians; but it is reasonable to draw parallels among other flora and fauna. The worst exotic offender, house cats and feral house cats, are never mentioned in such writings nor addressed by game and fish commissions.
Hopefully reptile keepers and USARK will obtain this book and study it carefully as it is now and in the future likely to be frequently cited as an authoritative document to further depress the reptile keeper hobby and commerce.
Comments about the book from readers in this forum will be useful to others.
Great review, Martin. It motivated me to purchase the book. I really enjoyed reading it.

On first reading, I personally didn't see undue emphasis on the pet trade compared to other factors, but I did see that the pet trade was mentioned often. So I counted mentions of the various sources of released animals (not number of releases, or number of species, but distinct mentions in the text), and categorized them like this:

--by the State (state/federal agencies, military, public universities, and police)
-- though commercial entities/endeavors (non-pet trade animal producers, bait dealers, ornamental plant trade, farming, human food use, and zoos)
-- the pet trade
-- unspecified entities

I also noted whether the mention contained a claim that the release was intentional, accidental, or wasn't specified. I was pretty careful to count well, but I'm certain I missed a few.

Releases by the State:
four intentional, three accidental, two unspecified

By commercial entities or endeavors:
11 intentional, 27 accidental, six unspecified

By the pet trade/pet owners:
14 intentional, six accidental, 47 unspecified

Releases by unspecified or unknown sources:
10 intentional, zero accidental, 61 unspecified

So the pet trade did get mentioned more frequently than any identified entity. I'm not sure that's undeserved or inaccurate, but there are the numbers.

I agree that the authors' terminology might be seen as harboring bias. Given the pains taken in the 'Criteria' section of the introduction to clarify what factors they took into account in deciding what gets included in the text, and the 'How are exotic species moved around' discussion there, it seems odd that they didn't define their terms of mode of release. It may be that there isn't exactly detailed evidence in many cases to make good judgements of release mode from, though.

As kind of an aside, my favorite release mention was on p. 114, where it is noted that a population of Jackson's Chameleons in California is there due to an "accidental release" when a breeder was "being raided in a sting operation". So, the cops couldn't keep chameleons from escaping? Enough of them to start an established population? They're not that hard to contain.

One extremely inappropriate portion of the book is the "invited essay" titled 'Observations from a Reptile Sanctuary in South-Central Pennsylvania', by Jesse Rothacker pp. 91-93. It was a description of the various species taken in by the author's reptile rescue, along with an evaluation of the causes of keepers surrendering their reptiles (not enough research was done and they cost too much to keep as they mature and need upsized caging "after a few years of rapid growth"). It also included mention of the fact that reptiles have lifespans a lot longer than many people know, and included a comment that they receive "many" turtles and tortoises "from senior citizens" that have been with their keepers for up to 40 years. Not only do the tortoise anecdotes undermine the 'few years of growth' comments, but they might better be taken as praiseworthy of the multi-decade commitments of many herp keepers. The article as a whole, regardless of its independent merits, is completely inappropriate for a text on introduced species except to discredit herp keepers. It contains no explicit references at all to introduced populations, and shouldn't be a part of the book.

Another essay, 'The Role of Aquaculture in the Problem of Exotic Species' by Malcolm L. McCallum (pp. 15-19) was a little more balanced. He points out the problems of releases from food and sport fishing breeding operations, from accidental transport of hitchhikers like bullfrogs to the direct harm to native herp populations by stocking sport fishing species. He also mentions (a little too briefly, though) the harms of restricting trade in herps and the benefits of encouraging captive breeding for the pet trade.

Is your copy poorly constructed? A copy I got from and returned to Amazon had severely warped covers, and separation of the endsheets from the covers. A second copy from B&N has bad wrinkles on the endsheets and a bubble on the back cover.
John - good job. Thanks for your comments and deeper "analytics".

I am irritated with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). Among many travesties, they are proposing a virtual shut down of keeping snakes. Most recently they drafted a regulation to prevent ownership of "all Lampropeltis". Fortunately enough people responded they reduced that regulation to "Alabama indigenous Lampropeltis"; including morphs and albinos. They prohibit keeping the large Lacey Act Injurious Snakes, non-native venomous, and tegus. The ADCNR is as a totalitarian democracy and snake keepers have little opportunity for input or to be heard. By and large, the ADCNR follows Auburn University's recommendations.

And the ADCNR releases millions of non-native fish every year, does not regulate importation of crayfish and bait / feeder worm species, allows release of 10's of thousands of quail, pheasant, grouse, does nothing about feral house cats, and on an on. Yet, they want to stop reptile keeping and enjoyment.

As an old guy, I recall the use and release of excess African clawed frogs, bullfrogs, turtles, lizards, and more during my undergraduate time. I did not observe release of non-native snakes. But I did often see releases of native snakes in distant locations from capture but within natural ranges.

I think issues for reptile keepers include lack of knowledge by authorities and little interest in obtaining input from reptile keepers. In Alabama, the Advisory Board for the ADCNR has said (paraphrased): "we don't get any revenue from you snake people and the easiest thing to do is prohibit keeping snakes". They are also citing the health care costs of venomous bites. Such is absolute nonsense compared to hunting and fishing deaths and injuries - but those activities generate license revenue.

As to my copy, I received a "clean and undamaged copy"; with the exception of a ding to one corner of the hard cover. It's an expensive book for its size and you should have a perfect copy. It is published by the University Press of Florida so the academic overhead increases cost.

Thanks again for your review and excellent comments.
Take a look at the Burmese python paper I just posted in FC "Herps in the News".
This is a well written and in depth paper.