Friday, 24 September 2010

Maiden Voyage

My name is Robert Sprackland and this is my first foray into publishing a blog. I became interested in herpetology 52 years ago, and pursued it as a career. When I started my interest the number of books about reptiles and amphibians was rather limited. You could either buy copies of old books that were mainly descriptive and taxonomic or anatomical treatments, or you could purchase the few volumes written for the "general audience." For the 1950s and 1960s, the major books in English were Raymond Ditmars's Reptiles of the World (first published in 1910 and not updated), Clifford Pope's World of Reptiles, Roger Conant's Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Eastern United States, Robert Stebbins's Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Western United States, Doris Cochrane's Amphibians of the World, and Karl Schmidt and Robert Inger's Reptiles of the World. There were additional titles that were aimed at a slightly more herpetologically savvy readership, such as those by James Oliver, Hobart Smith, Albert Wright, and others, but the variety was rather limited. Most of those books had only or primarily black and white illustrations, and the focus was overwhelmingly on the fauna of North America.

But in the late 1960s, and ever since, the number of books about reptiles, amphibians, or both has exploded into a sub-industry of its own. I think there are four reasons why this happened. First, people became more concerned about nature, natural resources, and the other creatures with which we share this planet. Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring and the marble-sized image of Earth as seen from the moon made our world more comprehensible as a single precious outpost for life. I believe it was Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, who remarked the he could hold up his hand and blot out the entire Earth with his thumb -- and, symbolically, all the history of the planet. Everything we are, or were, or would be, he noted, could be covered by the tip of his thumb. In essence he ws saying, "like it or not, we're all passengers on the only ride in town."

Second, those herpetology books I mentioned did a wonderful job of spreading the word that amphibians and reptiles are not, as Linnaeus thought, foul and loathsome creatures. They have a splendor and beauty that easily equal and often surpass that of other more familiar and popular creatures. To people like me, they considerably exceed the competition, and in that view I am not alone.

Third, as more biologists came to learn that reptiles and amphibians are model organisms for studying different aspects of life, their study became more and more widespread. There are few fields of biological exploration that have not benefited from studies using herpetofauna, among them neurology, psychology, pharmacology, wound repair and tissue regeneration, ecology, evolution, behavior, learning, stereotypical behavior, mate choice, the role of fever, and so many other topics. As anyone familiar with the academic world knows, a prime requirement for advancement is publishing; "publish or perish." With so many scientists from so many disciplines studying reptiles and amphibians, it naturally follows that a vast number -- dare I say uncountable numbers -- of books and articles was produced. Great news for the booksellers, not so great news for my wallet!

Finally, towards the end of the 1980s there began a upwelling of general interest in these terrific animals by people who wanted to keep them in their homes. In a few years that upwelling was a large wave as reptiles became pets, school demonstration animals, and investments for breeders. The people who kept such animals were no longer part of a rather small and voiceless cast of oddballs. By the 1990s, in fact, so many laypersons were keeping or breeding "pet" reptiles and amphibians that a new word entered the language; herpetoculture.

Simultaneously with all this was the development of an even bigger "fad," the Internet. Anyone with the technical know-how can set up a blog or website and publish whatever they want. Anything. Legal or not, true or not, whatever. Unlike conventional publishing, where any manuscript gets (or usually gets) at least some input from educated colleagues and editors, no one fact-checks (or, sadly, spell- or grammar-checks) what goes onto a website. And because so many people believe that if something is in print it must be true, an awful lot of unadulterated junk gets passed along to the unsuspecting readers as fact.

So here's my mission in this new blog:

I shall be writing about a variety of herpetological topics. Sometimes I'll stray into broader zoological or even biological themes, but always with a single goal. I plan to present unbiased information that is based on solid scientific fact. What you read here will be based on the best available information that I can obtain and post in legible English. Then, in separate paragraphs that I shall clearly mark as such, I shall add my interpretation and comments. So yes, I shall editorialize, but only after I clearly show you where I change the channels from fact-based reporting (and hence, no value judgments) to my opinions.

That's all for now. Stay tuned, though. A lot of information is forthcoming.
Thank you for visiting!