Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
25 Aug 2023
Written for Hardback
This is an important milestone in the Sri Lankan natural history field guide literature as it is the first comprehensive field guide in English to the country’s 102 extant species of amphibians. That is a number that is likely to increase due to ongoing research. However, the arrival of this field guide will add a further impetus to the continuing biodiversity exploration and discovery of the country’s amphibians. What I especially like about this book is that it is a thoroughly modern field guide. There are a few aspects to what I mean by this. Firstly, it will be genuinely helpful in telling apart similar species. Both the text and images (some marked with arrows) are oriented towards identification. Secondly, it is underpinned by a strong scientific leaning towards educating the reader on the current systematic arrangement of amphibians and helps to keep abreast of the many taxonomic revisions that almost all species have undergone.
The written introduction to the Orders, families and genera is also supported by the second table in the book which is a guide to the genera. These are supported by excellent black-and-white drawings by Eranga Geethanjana Perera. The table is preceded by one of the best topographic diagrams I have seen introducing the external features of amphibians.
This book benefits from three well-known field herpetologists who also have a strong track record in academic publishing. In fact, the lead author, Anslem de Silva is synonymous with herpetological studies in Sri Lanka. The combination of good photographs with text which is science-focussed and has a good field ID orientation, results in a landmark publication for amphibians. Future field workers will wonder how people managed before. I gather from experienced herpetologists that the book is not without a few of the usual first-edition gremlins, but these can be ironed out in a later edition. On the whole, it is clear that John Beaufoy Publishing has another Asian photographic field guide milestone to its credit.
The book begins with a topographic map of Sri Lanka overlaid with key roads and nature reserves followed by a geo-climatic map in the front section pages. All field guides should have these. The front sections run into 35 pages and include both a general introduction to amphibians as well as one specific to Sri Lankan amphibians. Topics covered include climatic zones and habitats, identification, conservation, folklore, a glossary and practical tips on finding amphibians. The reader is advised to turn stones or logs towards oneself, counterintuitive as it may seem, this offers protection from concealed snakes that may strike. The end sections include a checklist and references.
The bulk of the book (pages 35 to 232) is taken by the species descriptions covering the two scientific orders of amphibians. The order Anura (Frogs and Toads) is represented by 5 families. The Bufonidae (Toads, 6 species), Dicroglossidae (Fork-tongued Frogs, 13 species), Microhylidae (Narrow-mouth Frogs, 12 species), Ranidae (True Frogs, 3 species) and Rhacophoridae (Afro-Asian Tree Frogs, 83 species). The order Gymnophiona is represented by one family the Icthyophiidae, the Asiatic-tailed Caecilians. The radiation of the Rhacophorids, 83 species, in Sri Lanka is one of the most remarkable examples of island radiations in the scientific literature. Furthermore, 89 per cent of all amphibians are endemic to Sri Lanka. The country is an amphibian hot spot.
The species accounts are well structured with the species name given in Sinhala, one of the two local languages. I suspect a Tamil nomenclature of common names is a pending task. The first part of the species account explains when and by whom a species was first described followed by the changes in the Latin name. This typically indicates changes to its generic placement, sometimes involving multiple changes. Although there are many online databases that track the historical taxonomy, it is useful to have this on the page. Size is given followed by the section on ‘Identification Features’. This is usually the most extensive part of the text and is well-written as it focuses on key ID characters and how to tell apart similar species. This is supported by the good photographs some of which have arrows pointing out key characters. This is the first time a comprehensive amphibian guide in English has drawn out succinctly key identification characters for field use. Some amphibian species will require examination in the hand. Other standard sections in the text include Colour, Habits, Habitat and Distribution, Status (e.g. if endemic) and IUCN Red List Category. There are maps for each species account indicating where a species has been recorded. Sometimes there may be as little as one dot or just two or three dots. Single dots may not necessarily be due to a lack of fieldwork. But can often indicate that a species is a point endemic which is confined to one mountain peak or valley. This highlights the risk that with forest clearance Sri Lanka may have lost species before science even caught up with them.
This is not the first time that John Beaufoy Publishing, a publisher based in the UK has scored a first with a comprehensive or near-comprehensive photographic field guide to vertebrate groups in Sri Lanka. They have done so with A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka
and A Naturalists Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka
. This reinforces why international collaboration is so important in the study of biodiversity. The involvement of international publishers and international scientists helps with raising the profile of Sri Lanka and helps with both tourism in general and more specifically with wildlife tourism.
I will conclude by saying, on the whole, this field guide is a fantastic piece of work, especially for a first edition. A Photographic Field Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka
will be a game changer and open up amphibian identification to a wider range of serious natural history enthusiasts who previously would have found it too difficult to attempt as there was too much of a mass of seemingly dense and impenetrable scientific literature. This book will also make it easier for those who conduct ecological surveys and environmental impact assessments to more easily compile an accurate inventory of species at a site and to assess threats to amphibians. After all for the eyes to see, we first need to have a name and to be able to tell apart one named species from another. This book will accelerate the discovery and description of new species.