Behind the Book: The Snake and the Salamander

When Matt asked if I was interested in writing a few paragraphs to accompany each of the illustrations he was creating for a book on the amphibians and reptiles of the northeast, I jumped at the chance. A quick check of his website convinced me that he could produce really wonderful, high quality, scientifically accurate illustrations. He wanted to explore the fantastic colors and body forms exhibited by this group of lesser known vertebrates. I wanted to explore the diversity of lifestyles and habitats used by these critters. Our goal was a book that would excite the interest of naturalists and students as well as be of interest to the general public.

Our first discussions centered around how to define the northeast for our purposes and which species to illustrate. If we only dealt with New England we would have about 60 species to work with. And we would be missing a number of very colorful species found in the New Jersey Pine Barrens as well as the states as far south as Virginia and West Virginia. Defining the northeast as Maine to Virginia would also correspond to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 5 and Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation’s northeast region. Having worked extensively with the USFWS in my professional career as the amphibian and reptile specialist for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and as chair of the steering committee for both PARC and Northeast PARC, this geographic area made sense to me. And our list of possible species for consideration was expanded to over 160.

Unlike a field guide, we made the decision to illustrate each species in a typical habitat for that species as well as showing predator-prey relationships, reproduction, morphological variation, or other interesting aspects of the species. We also decided to group the species by habitats rather than the traditional frog-salamander-snake-lizard-turtle format used by many books. My belief is that if people think of wildlifeyes, amphibians and reptiles are wildlifeas associated with particular habitats they will have a better appreciation and understanding of a species’ needs, the first step in effective conservation.

The end result is that the book is a series of short stories. Each chapter starts with a habitat description providing an overview of the region. I expect many people, especially those not from the northeast, will be surprised to learn of our mountains, rivers, lakes and forests. The northeast is wilder than most people realize. Most of the short species accounts center on the biology and identification of the organism but many also touch on history and conservation. My hope is that the information provided will tweak the reader’s interest enough so that they research in more depth about these amazing animals. The take-home message is that although we have learned a great deal, we have really only scratched the surface about what we can learn about amphibians and reptiles and what they can teach us about our natural world.


Alvin R. Breisch, a collaborator with the Roosevelt Wild Life Station, was the amphibian and reptile specialist and the director of the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation until his retirement in 2009. He is a coauthor of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State: Identification, Natural History, and Conservation. His latest book, illustrated by Matt Patterson, is entitled The Snake and the Salamander: Reptiles and Amphibians from Maine to Virginia.

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