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Old 30th January 2010   #1
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Default Book Review: The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians by Kentwood Wells

Kentwood Wells, The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007). 1148 pages.

This is a big book. A big, heavy, textbook. (Mmmm, it had that new book smell.) There were no color pictures, but many excellent drawings (see scans below).
The book is 1148 pages long, but effectively ends on p. 855. The rest is all references (pp. 857 to 1084) and index (pp. 1085-1148). Wow, that’s a LOT of references. And a lot of book for $59.59.

This is definitely an advanced book. I had to look up a lot of words, like “sarcopterygian” (“lobe-finned”), “gooloogongia” (a member of the tetropodomorpha family), “uricotelic” (refers to animals that excrete nitrogenous wastes in the form of uric acid, like reptiles and birds [Wikipedia]) and “vitellogenesis” (“yolk deposition”, a reproductive term [Wikipedia]). The word of the week award, however, goes to “lek.” Once its recurrence convinced me that it wasn’t a typo, my next stop was Wikipedia, where I learned that it refers to “a gathering of males, of certain animal species, for the purposes of competitive mating display. Leks assemble before and during the breeding season.” Originally used to refer to the behavior of the sage grouse, many other animals exhibit this behavior as well.*

I can’t wait to spring that on Grumpet during our next Scrabble game! He will have a FIT!!

Wells prefers the term “urodeles” to “caudates,” a word I love. It just makes me want to yodel. “Urodel-ay-HEE-hoo!”
But enough silliness, and on to the review.

A lot has been written about this book already. This article first alerted me to the existence of the book.

I never thought I’d try to read a book more difficult than Duellman &Trueb’s, but now I have.

Wells begins each chapter with very accessible, interesting, and readable overviews of the chapter contents. But when the chapter begins the matter in detail, it gets successively more complicated. Of course the book is fascinating, but the presentation of statistics is very dry. This book is a lot more statistic and graph oriented than Duellman &Trueb’s. I’ve never read anything statistical that wasn’t dry. I hate to say this, but for me, Wells manages to turn almost every interesting fact into a series of boring statistics and minutiae. But remember, I am a layperson, and remember what all the scientists said above. You may also access Amazon reviews for other opinions. I enjoyed being cowed and baffled by Duellman & Trueb more than Wells; Duellman & Trueb was more useful and readable to me. Wells read like a financial report. Nothing is simple once you start studying it statistically. Even otters presented statistically would bore me to tears. Statistics do not necessarily make things clearer. If you want to learn complex information about amphibians in a clear and simple manner, sitck with Stebbins & Cohen. But if your curiosity is unending, and maybe you are even a cat with a deathwish (i.e. curiousity killed the...), hey, go for it.

The impediment the statistics caused me was not helped by the long references in parentheses which made difficult reading even more difficult. It was hard enough grasping a sentence, but to have to pause in the middle of a complex thought while I found the end of the sentence was almost like reading German. It would have been much easier on the eye had they printed those references in a slightly lighter font, or done something to guide the eye over them.

Again, as with Duellman & Trueb, I skimmed the frog stuff – it was just so much “blah blah blah” to me, though I did look at all the pictures. As it was, much of the caudate section required my full attention in order not to become a dull noise.

To continue comparing these two books, I want to point out that they do not cover the same information, or they may cover it in a completely different way.
For example, Chapter 13 (the bone and muscle chapter) of Duellman & Trueb is not paralleled here. This chapter went through the musculoskeletal just about bone by bone and muscle by muscle. So if you want information like that, Wells does not have it.
However, though I mostly skimmed the frog parts, I did read sections here and there. In fact, one of the frog quotes upset me greatly, so much so that I had to blog about it. Being endothermic myself, it is not a personal worry, but it is a gruesome plight nonetheless, and I can’t help but feel badly for the little pipestems.

In the whole chapter on metabolism, there was only one sentence I really enjoyed, but it was so wonderful it was worth the slog:

[C]omparisons of metabolic rates of ambystomatid salamanders and one large plethodontid, Desmognathus quadramaculatus, exercised on a treadmill showed that the ambystomatids had higher maximum metabolic rates, higher factorial aerobic scopes, and higher maximum aerobic speeds. Desmognathus quadramaculatus was exhausted in less than 20 minutes by rates of movement that ambystomatid salamanders could sustain for one to two hours (p. 194).

Can you just see our little salamander friends on their treadmills with little sweatbands and sneakers?

Here’s an example of …what I call “detailed information”:
“Anurans that have relatively large heart ventricles in relation to body size tend to be more tolerant of dehydration than are those with relatively smaller ventricles” (p.110). See? It wasn’t all bad.

There was more information about ion exchange and osmoregulation in the chapter on water relationship than even a mermaid scientist could care about. Yes, this is an advanced scientific tome.

And finally,

The energetic cost of locomotion can be affected by changes in the gaits of animals. Some amphibians rely exclusively on one type of locomotion, such as walking, whereas others, including some toads, switch from walking to hopping at faster movement speeds. B. Anderson, Feder, and Full (1991) measured the cost of locomotion in toads using mixed gaits and those using only walking or hopping gaits. They found that individual hops are more expensive than individual strides during walking, but the distance covered by a hop is greater. This resulted in the cost of transport being about half as great for hopping toads as for walking toads. Toads can therefore save energy by switching to more economical hopping gait at faster speeds…(p. 194)

This language reminds me of the pamphlets they send with my credit card statements about their new policies. What? Yeah, I don’t read them either.

One of the many things I learned in this book was that a lot of research has been done on redbacks (Plethodon cinereus) and their intraspecies interactions and territorial behaviors. I knew already about how females judge the suitability of males by their feces. Here is one odd thing he wrote about them:
“…the presence of P. cinereus actually enhanced the abundance of collembolans [springtails], which they do not eat, by reducing the abundance of their predators.”
I was surprised to read that; I thought they did eat them. I wonder what ‘s up with that. I created a thread asking forum members about their own experiences with this.

Often when Wells is talking in generalities about “amphibians,” he’s only talking about frogs. In most of the random generalities, twenty of his examples will be frogs, and one or two will be salamanders, if any. So many of his “amphibian” generalities really only apply to frogs. In chapter 14, “Amphibians and their predators,” he only considers man as a frog predator, and not as a salamander predator. Hey, what about those tylos-on-a-stick?? (see post #7, and last picture below!)

So if you want to read a book you’ll only understand 5% of, anurophiles will probably prefer Wells, while urodelophiles will prefer Duellman & Trueb. People who don’t like to read about herps can stick to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Non-masochists, once again, two words: Stebbins & Cohen.
If I were getting an advanced degree in salamanderology I would read both. One very good point about Wells’ book is that he concludes chapters with areas requiring more research, which I can only imagine would be a big plus for herpetology students looking for a thesis topic.

Wells is an engaging writer when he’s not presenting statistics.
The most useful parts of his book for us as urodelophiles, then, are the individual chapter introductions, conclusions, chapter 9 (“Communication and Social Behavior of Urodeles and Caecilians”), and most of chapter 16 (“Conservation of Amphibians”).

*a good article about salamanders and "leks":
But the illustrations of tadpole morphs in chapter twelve are always good for a creep-out.
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Last edited by Otterwoman; 1st February 2010 at 16:41.
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Old 30th January 2010   #2
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Default Re: Book Review: The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians by Kentwood Wells

Excellent review Dawn. This is one of my all time favorite books (yeah, i'm a loser like that) and i've had it checked out of my library for the last 16 months. It can be dry at times but for people interested in amphibian biology it is a great place to get started because it's up to date and has so many references. Much of what I do is look up a topic in his book and then use his references as starting places for research.

Anyway, bravo for tackling this book!


"Conservation through Education"
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Old 21st April 2010   #3
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Default Re: Book Review: The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians by Kentwood Wells

As a hobbyist who simply enjoys keeping amphibians but in a non-professional capacity, I totally agree with your review. One special gripe of mine is that when I ordered this book on Amazon, I was led to believe by the cover pictures that it would contain color photos or plates of many interesting species. Instead, of course, I was dismayed to learn that all the pictures in the book are black & white, even those which pertain to topics such as aposematic coloration, camouflage, etc., where a color photo would really have done a much better job of illustrating what is being presented. I thought the book did have a few interesting tidbits in it here and there about things like courtship rituals, geographic distribution patterns, etc. but unfortunately found only a rather small fraction of the material to be of very much interest to the layperson. (I said as much on an Amazon review and got a bit of heckling for it!)

Last edited by crotusia; 21st April 2010 at 17:33. Reason: grammar
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Old 3rd June 2010   #4
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Default Re: Book Review: The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians by Kentwood Wells

Thanks for the great review!

I've ordered this book already, and I can't wait for it to arrive! It'll probably get here around my first days of summer vacation~ A lot of time to read and understand every concept! Haha

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