Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 5:19-21
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Book Reviews

North American Box Turtles: A Natural History, by C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr. 2001. University of Oklahoma Press, 10.25 x 7.125 in., xviii + 231 pp. Hardcover/DJ, Price $59.95 and
Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins: Survivors in Armor, by Ronald Orenstein. 2001. Firefly Books, Inc., 11 x 8.5 in., xii + 308 pp. Hardcover/DJ, Price: $45.00

Reviewed by John P. Levell
NorthStar Herpetological Associates - Turtle and Tortoise Book Shop
P.O. Box 389; Lanesboro, MN 55949-0389; USA

Those old enough to remember the Beatles invading New York back in 1964 (R.I.P., George), probably also recall a time when quality new books covering freshwater turtles were few and far between. In fact, until the 1967 release of Living Turtles of the World by Peter Pritchard, most well stocked chelonian libraries in the United States contained exactly two titles, Clifford Pope’s by then antique Turtles of the United States & Canada (1939) and Carr’s Handbook of Turtles (1952).

Putting things into perspective, five years would pass between the appearance of Pritchard’s Living Turtles and the release of the next in-depth review of semi-aquatic chelonians, Turtles of the United States by Ernst and Barbour, in 1972. We then had to wait until 1979 for the next major works to appear, although that year did mark the release of two separate volumes, Turtles: Perspectives and Research edited by Harless and Morlock and Pritchard’s greatly expanded Encyclopedia of Turtles.

These two volumes were then followed by an unprecedented burst of activity, in which new titles appeared every couple of years; Freiberg’s little Turtles of South America (1981), Turtles of Venezuela by Pritchard and Trebbeau (1984), the English translation of Obst’s exceptional Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins (1986), Alderton’s Turtles & Tortoises of the World (1988), the far superior Turtles of the World by Ernst and Barbour (1989), and Gibbons’ Life History and Ecology of the Slider Turtle (1990).

While a similar rate of new releases continued throughout most of 1990s, the number of titles covering semi-aquatic and terrestrial turtles available to American readers has increased significantly over the past three to four years. In this time period volumes examining Asian (at least 3 major monographs), Australasian (1 monograph and at least 3 smaller publications), and African species, as well as worldwide overviews of turtle reproduction (Kuchling, 1999) and conservation (Klemens, 2000) have all been widely distributed within the United States. In fact, the amount of quality new turtle publications makes it difficult to single out any one for review.

With these thoughts in mind, it was therefore thought best to briefly comment on two of the most exciting turtle volumes to be released during 2001. The first of these of course, if for no other reason than appearing earlier, is C. Kenneth Dodd’s long awaited review of North American box turtles. In producing this volume, Dodd has successfully synthesized the wealth of existing information on turtles of the genus Terrapene into one neatly compact, researcher friendly and highly readable tone.

At the same time, the pages of North American Box Turtles: A Natural History are liberally sprinkled with a plethora of Ken’s personal observations and research findings. Chapters reviewing the evolution, habitats, activity and movements, behavior, reproduction, feeding, population structure, predators and diseases, and conservation of box turtles overall are followed by relatively extensive standardized accounts for each of the four currently recognized species. These species accounts incorporate data on the type specimens, distribution, and appearance of all recognized subspecies and include range maps, etymologies, and complete synonymies of changes in nomenclature.

As expected, Dodd freely cites relevant literature whenever appropriate and the resultant bibliography spanning nearly 19 pages is quite impressive indeed. This, of course, only further enhances the book’s overall research value. Those with a more casual interest in Terrapene, however, will nevertheless find Dodd’s informative prose an easy and pleasurable read. Typographical errors and other mistakes are remarkably scarce throughout the text as well, despite Ken’s humble claims to the contrary. About the only conceivable criticism that can be directed at the book at all concerns the 8 pages of color photographic plates, which have been reproduced at a size some may find too small. This admittedly poor editorial decision aside, North American Box Turtles is simply one of those classic natural history monographs that will serve as a standard reference for decades to come.

Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins: Survivors in Armor by Ronald Orenstein, unlike Dodd’s genus specific review, provides a more “popular” overview of chelonians on a worldwide basis. As such, the text includes coverage of the sea turtles as well as the diverse assortment of semi-aquatic and terrestrial chelonian species. While similar broad-based reviews have been the target of previously released volumes, the most recent of these, Ernst and Barbour’s Turtles of the World, is now nearly 13 years old. Considering the significant advances made in turtle research over the past decade or so, a newer synthesis of relevant information is certainly a most worthwhile goal.

Although by his own admission primarily an ornithologist, Orenstein has nevertheless produced an accurate, obviously thoroughly researched, and highly informative text. Unlike most worldwide overviews, which concentrate mainly on species diversity and identification, Ron has instead opted to focus more attention on what turtles are and why they do what they do. While superficially resembling the general approach utilized by Obst in his similarly titled Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins, the more forcible emphasis on chelonian conservation issues by Orenstein sets his volume yet further apart.

Wrapped in a dust jacket featuring a beautiful shot of the Wood Turtle, Clemmys insculpta, and profusely illustrated with over 300 color photographs, the book is quite attractive to look at as well. Contributed by some of the world’s leading wildlife photographers, interior color photos are invariably of excellent quality. Unfortunately, these photos also constitute the book’s only significant flaw, as the captions of a select few obviously misidentify the species depicted. The “nostril ridges” of the turtle illustrated on page 70, for example, clearly identify it as a Spiny Softshell, Apalone spinifera, not the Smooth, A. mutica, as claimed in the caption. The “basking chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)” of page 115, as well as the sliders “(Trachemys scripta)” of page 179, are likewise almost certainly some kind of Pseudemys. Of course, it is equally possible that these mistakes in identification rest with the original photographer, as here Ron has been left largely at their mercy.

This comparatively minor flaw, however, fails to overshadow the extent of Orenstein’s accomplishment. His accurate and fact-filled text, while easily readable by even the most casual of turtle observers, will almost certainly provide some unknown tidbit of useful information to just about everyone regardless of expertise. Although this alone seems destined to insure Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins: Survivors in Armor a prominent place in the annals of chelonian literature, the volume’s strong and clear stand on the side of turtle conservation, at the same time, cannot be more highly commended or have come at a moment too soon. Hey Ron, all in all, not bad for an ornithologist!

Literature Cited:
Alderton, David. 1988. Turtles & Tortoises of the World. Facts on File. New York, New York.

Carr, Archie F. 1952. Handbook of Turtles: Turtles of the United States, Canada, and Baja California. Comstock/Cornell. Ithaca, New York.

Ernst, Carl H. and Barbour, Roger W. 1972. Turtles of the United States. Univ. Press of Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky.

Ernst, Carl H. and Barbour, Roger W. 1989. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, DC.

Freiberg, Marcos. 1981. Turtles of South America. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune, New Jersey.

Gibbons, J. Whitfield (editor). 1990. Life History and Ecology of the Slider Turtle. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, DC.

Harless, Marion and Morlock, Henry (editors). 1979. Turtles: Perspectives and Research. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, New York.

Klemens, Michael W. (editor). 2000. Turtle Conservation. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, DC.

Kuchling, Gerald. 1999. Reproductive Biology of the Chelonia. Springer-Verlag. Berlin, Germany.

Obst, Fritz Jürgen.1986. Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins. St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York.

Pope, Clifford H. 1939. Turtles of the United States & Canada. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, New York.

Pritchard, Peter C. H. 1967. Living Turtles of the World. T.F.H. Publications. Jersey City, New Jersey.

Pritchard, Peter C. H. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune, New Jersey.

Pritchard, Peter C. H., and Trebbau, Pedro. 1984. The Turtles of Venezuela. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Oxford, Ohio.