Rattlesnakes are extraordinary. Their capacity to deliver painful death via the head and a warning noise via the tail has caused them to retain a powerful hold on the imagination. In his introduction, Chris Mattison pays tribute to their attributes: "they are the most up-to-date snakes - state of the art. They have features and accessories that are not found in other models - if they were motor cars or dishwashers everybody would want one."
The book does ample justice to its subject. It contains sections on anatomy, habits, evolution, interactions with humans and a list of all known rattlesnakes with a description of each and observations about their distribution, habitats and venom. It is lavishly illustrated with 55 colour photographs and 30 maps.
Mattison is a well-known and prolific author on herpetological subjects, having published ten books in the past 14 years. His speciality is clearly the captive care of reptiles and amphibians; he has also written more general texts on snakes, lizards, frogs and toads. This however is his first book about the natural history of a relatively small group. Rattlesnakes comprise about 30 species confined to the New World; Mexico is the main area of diversity, where no less than 26 rattlesnake species occur.
He vividly communicates detailed information about these snakes with enthusiasm, fluency and good humour. A major selling point will clearly be the superb photographs, many taken in the field by Mattison himself during the course of six trips to the United States and four to Mexico. However this is much more than just a picture book. It would be an ideal purchase for those who already have more general books about snakes and are ready to move onto something more substantial.
It appears remarkably error-free, although I noticed a minor mistake in the table on page 91: Crotalus aquilus (Queretaran dusky rattlesnake) was named by Laurence Klauber in 1952 (albeit as a subspecies of Crotalus triseriatus) and not by Michael E. Dorcas in 1992. Given that almost one quarter of the book is devoted to an alphabetically arranged listing and description of all rattlesnake species, it might have been helpful to provide some extra guidance in the form of a key. Perhaps Mattison does not want to encourage foolhardiness, for, as he says, "if a rattlesnake appears to defy identification and you are tempted to look more closely, don't. Practise on road kills!"
Colin McCarthy is collection manager of lower vertebrates, department of zoology, Natural History Museum, London.
Rattler!: A Natural History of Rattlesnakes
Author - Chris Mattison
ISBN - 0 7137 2534 6
Publisher - Blandford
Price - £20.00
Pages - 144