HANDBOOK OF SNAKES OF THE UNITED STATES
Vols. 1-2. Albert H. Wright and Anna A. Wright
John R. Lee
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Drawer E, Aiken, South Carolina 29801
Just as inevitably as those catching water snakes will at some point reek of musk
and pick teeth out of their hands, those reading about any species of snake will at
some point encounter a reference to Wright and Wright (1957). Now, reprinted
as part of the Comstock Classic Handbook series, both amateurs and
professionals alike have another chance to own this herpetological landmark.
For the most part, this handbook is unchanged from the 1957 edition. A new
paperback cover design and a "Foreword to the 1994 printing" by J. A. Campbell
are the only novelties. Changes in nomenclature over the past 37 years make the
table in Campbell's foreword relating the names of species used by the Wrights to
modern synonyms much appreciated.
The authors' stated purpose is to give accounts for all the species of snakes in the
United States and Canada, and this is well accomplished. An introductory chapter
explains the topics used throughout the book (name, range, size, longevity,
distinctive characteristics, color, habits and habitat, activity periods, breeding,
ecdysis, food, venom, enemies, field notes, and authorities) and gives some
additional information on the explanations of names, hemipenes, eggs, and the
sizes of young. Also included in the introduction is a series of maps of' the United
States showing various features that may influence the distributions of snakes (i.e.,
plant ranges, geological features, physical divisions, annual isotherms, etc.).
However, the text does not directly address the significance of the maps to
distribution patterns per se. Following the introductory material is the bulk of the
work containing a key to the families and the species accounts alphabetized by
genus in each family. The separate keys to the genera are found at the beginning of
each family section and contain many excellent line drawings. The range maps
included with the species accounts are less detailed than Conant and Collins
(1991) but more so than Ernst and Barbour (1989), both of which represent the
contemporary standards for a snake handbook. Wright and Wright give more
black-and-white photos for each species than do modern texts, but in some cases
the photos are not well reproduced (the loss of detail makes some photos appear
as simple silhouettes). Contemporary readers may be bored by the exceedingly
detailed descriptions of one or two specimens used in place of color plates. In
contrast, the field notes from the Wrights' extensive collecting trips often make up
the most interesting readings in the book, and the various questions posed by them
in the text offer much food for thought (especially when one considers that many
of their questions have not yet been answered).
Overall, this book has few faults. Bogert (1957) and Jameson (1957) addressed
the flaws in their reviews of the original printing. These include the relative brevity
of the introduction, failure of the introduction to summarize some topics
(hibernation, scalation, locomotion, relations of temperature to distribution
patterns), lack of page numbers and ranges in the keys, and the lack of an
included bibliography. The bibliography is the third volume of this series and soon
went out of print following publication in 1962 by the Wrights. Luckily, it is
available through the Facsimile Reprints in Herpetology series of the Society for
the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.
In the foreword, Campbell points out that this book has "aged well [and it]
continues to be a valuable and useful addition to the libraries of professional and
amateur naturalists." Given the fact that currently little more is known for some
species than was related by the Wrights, I must concur with Campbell, and I
definitely feel that those purchasing this book and its bibliography will gain far
more in worth than what one pays for the series.
SREL Reprint #1990
Lee, J.R. 1995. Vols. 1-2. Albert H. Wright and Anna A. Wright. 1994. Cornell
University Press, Ithaca, NY. Vol. 1 564 p., Vol. 2 540 p. Copeia 1995:753-754.
To request a reprint