In 2017, spring peepers appeared in my neighborhood wetlands, on April 16, with trademark enthusiasm, broadcasting sexual exuberance across our narrow, wooded valley … a full-throated, dusk-to-dawn serenade. I opened the bedroom windows, took it all in, and then reached for my copy of The Snake and the Salamander: Reptiles and Amphibians from Maine to Virginia, by Alvin Breisch, retired New York State herpetologist. The book is packed with concise accounts of 83 native species; each nugget coalesces genetics, evolution, conservation, and natural history, opening figurative windows into the mysterious realm of a snake, turtle, lizard, frog, or salamander. Some of the herpetofauna (or “herps”) that Breisch covers will be as familiar as childhood friends (spring peeper); others will be obscure (Wehrle’s salamander); most you’ve certainly heard of (wood turtle).
Turning to the section on spring peepers, I read that its high notes are inversely related to its body size: “The length of the vocal chords is responsible for the difference in the calls. Smaller male spring peepers produce higher-pitched calls than larger spring peepers…just as the shorter strings on a musical instrument produce higher notes than the longer strings.”
Armed with knowledge, I began to conduct fieldwork from the comfort of my bed, teasing through the chorus – much more enjoyable than counting sheep – until I convinced myself that I heard a smaller, younger, more high-pitched male.
There’s much more to this book. Matt Peterson’s original color paintings do for The Snake and the Salamander what David Carroll’s do for The Year of the Turtle, elevating a natural history book into a wildlife art book. Each painting began as a pencil sketch that was overlaid with acrylic and opaque watercolors; most backgrounds are stained and toned with coffee. Breisch and Peterson combined talents to create a book both eminently readable and gorgeously illustrated, an interdisciplinary work of art and science in the best tradition of nineteenth-century natural history.
A preface, followed by an introduction, launch the reader into nine habitat types, each with its own introduction: Northeastern Deciduous Forest, Wicked Big Puddles, Small Waters, Big Waters, and so forth. Each species account and corresponding painting appears within the herp’s primary habitat. In the appendixes, a series of five tables that cross-reference habitat, Breisch reminds us that most animals don’t confine themselves to a single habitat.
By no means is this a conventional guide book. Breisch chose aspects of each species he found interesting and then wove the material into the account’s fabric. For instance, the green frog and the smooth green snake, two “green species,” lack green pigment in their skin. And, although I thought I knew all about my favorite boyhood salamander, the northern red-backed, I was amazed to learn that collectively they would weigh about “twice that of all the woodland birds combined and are about equal to that of all the small mammals.” Calculations based on statewide surveys indicate that possibly 14 billion live in the leaf litter of New York, about 14,000 tons of salamanders, which collectively are a primary source of energy flow throughout the northern deciduous forest.
Writes Breisch, “Several studies have shown that in the absence of red-backed salamanders, the decomposers, such as earthworms, consume much of the leaf litter. Without the protective leaf litter, soil erosion and drying occur, potentially changing the character of the forest. So the next time you take a hike on a woodland trail, thank a red-backed salamander.”
No doubt, The Snake and the Salamander will be on my dining room table all summer...a coffee table book, both beautiful and informative.