“Good books are a priceless possession, they reveal the minds of creative men and enrich life with fine experience.”
The above is writing seen on the walls of the Suzallo-Allen Libraries at the University of Washington Campus in Seattle, a favorite place I’ve visited a few times over the years.
It never ceases to amaze me what we don’t know about the world that we live in, and perhaps what is even more incredible to me are the very real, huge efforts of mankind in attempting to unravel and document so many aspects of life on our amazing little ball of earth and water. I’ve been lucky, or maybe curious enough to try and surround myself with voracious and inquiring minds. Many of those people I’ve somehow managed to befriend via the internet in some fashion.
I have vivid memories of sending e-mails out to scientists of all kinds as soon as I had access to the internet and every so often I was delighted to find the occasional response sitting in my typically dormant inbox. Science, for me, was a moment spent in taking a closer look at my surroundings or a book in my backpack. Understanding the world at large was always on my horizon. I’m pleased to say my habits have not wilted as I’ve grown older…quite the opposite, in fact!
Many people don’t see the potential in Facebook beyond it being something of a distraction, mere entertainment, and the way it tends to drag one into zombifying hours of useless clicking… ultimately to the benefit of advertisers. I’ve done my best to counter that habit, to put Facebook to use for personal research projects, for educating the greater public about the topics and subjects I am extremely passionate about, and to seek out opportunities to collaborate with other people trying to do positive things in all aspects of nature, conservation, and art.
One of these remarkable people is Ted R. Kahn, a man who has devoted decades of his life to studying amphibians, particularly poison frogs. He’s the Executive Director of the Neotropical Conservation Foundation, (NCF – Facebook Page) which he founded in 2005. He is also one of the editors and the illustrator of the recently published book I’m reviewing here, which I’d ordered a few days ago and have since had time to look over with James, with whom I was eager to share the book. We are both excited about it!
Nature is full of little mysteries and this wonderful addition to human knowledge, Aposematic Poison Frogs (Dendrobatidae) of the Andean Countries (covering Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) is a guide that will most certainly reveal many remarkable things about one of its many creations.
I should mention that my personal experience with poison frogs is quite limited – I can count on my fingers the times I’ve encountered them in the wild. I’ve no idea how many captive species I’ve seen in zoos or at the few reptile expositions I’ve attended; so I have only ever known as much as what I’ve absorbed in bits and pieces through the imagery and articles of scientific or fellow nature photographer friends, or read about on a whim now and then. In Panama, I’ve seen maybe two very different types of poison frog and only one in Ecuador!
Above: A number of captive poison frogs I’d seen for sale at a reptile expo in Seattle several years ago. I don’t know if they were all captive bred or wild caught or a mix.
Above: A wild, teal morph Dendrobates auratus. Guide Macedonio and I found her while hiking in Panama in 2014. I’d seen another poison frog up in the local national park, but accidentally deleted the photos I had taken as I hiked! 😥
The only poison frog I’ve seen in Ecuador, Epipedobates darwinwallacei (Mindo Poison Frog) photographed in Mindo in 2014. I’d had no idea they were there until they were shown to us, even though we often hear them nearby. James Muchmore is pictured, getting photos of the frog on a log. He works with the ‘Save The Choco‘ initiative protecting wildlife in the vital Choco Rainforest.
For whatever reason (perhaps lack of encounters), I hadn’t yet thought to buy a book all about poison frogs, but once I learned Ted was working on the illustrations for one (he would frequently share some on Facebook, which was very inspiring to me!) I kept an eye out for the day it was to be published.
The book is delightful, almost unexpectedly comprehensive, and very nicely put together by a great group of people who knew what they would expect from a good field guide and seem to have used those experiences to create something exceptional. It’s much more than a guide – in parts it feels and looks very much like a miniature textbook, with extra little photos and diagrams about various aspects of the art or history surrounding poison frogs. The commitment to a great end product is clear. I must congratulate all the editors and authors who contributed to this body of work!
The book starts off with systematics, then details conservation efforts and the problems these frogs face in relation to man, reproduction, and then the bioactive alkaloids. Proceeding, we get details on the different genera and species that make up this large family. In the back we have a glossary, related websites that may prove useful, the bibliography, index and some blank lined pages for your own field notes. The inside of the back cover even has a ruler along the edge and instructions on placing frogs on it (in a plastic bag, to prevent the spread of disease) for measuring them.
One of the things I most enjoy about this book, besides Ted’s brilliantly lifelike illustrations, is the ample number of habitat photos for many of the species accounts. If you find yourself at home and unable to travel for some time, this book has a remarkable way of transporting you right into the frogs’ world. The landscape photos serve as windows into that world. I think this feeling is probably strengthened by any real-life experience one has in similar habitats, but it should prove very inspiring and informative to anyone who wants to see them in person in the future.
Chapter 4 is an in-depth explanation of the bioactive alkaloids in Dendrobatid frogs, written by Dr. John William Daly, who I was sad to learn had passed away in 2008, and to whom the book is very warmly dedicated. I was lamenting the fact that I have no formal education on chemistry about a week ago and how because of that I was doomed to miss out on the more interesting details of these frogs’ evolution and survival methods, so it was great to find out that this book covers that in a lot of detail, including the medicinal uses of the alkaloids in modern times and traditionally by indigenous peoples. I’ll have to do some studying to really get the most out of it, but I’m very grateful to have a solid write-up to guide me along that path.
The setup for pages on each genus is pleasing to the eye and very thoughtfully compiled. We get details on the taxonomy and silhouettes of the species size range within the genus, with measurements. An extra little detail I enjoy seeing throughout the whole book is the color coded bottom corners and the strip at the top of the page, which makes navigating the book in a pinch much easier. The artist in me is also a big fan of the little frog icon tucked into the corner, it’s different for each corresponding genus instead of being one generic poison frog symbol. It’s little touches like that which tickle my fancy for books!
The species accounts are very detailed. Throughout the entire book, the writing is appropriately rich and precise while still being totally accessible to someone who is maybe just learning about these frogs. For anything that may leave someone unfamiliar with the terminology scratching their head, the glossary is there to assist. Several paragraphs are often given to the different aspects of each frog. Of course, some accounts are more detailed than others; many of the frogs are fairly newly described but there is really a wealth of information for a huge majority of them.
Again it must be mentioned how beautifully rendered Ted’s frogs are. A tiny number of the actual photos of the frogs with a lot of black in them are a bit underexposed, little details are hard to make out (probably more so in the printing process than maybe can be seen on a computer screen or phone) which is really my only little complaint about the book, so the drawings really stand out. These drawings are all very consistent and are presented on a white background, which makes comparing species much easier. Color morphs of a particular species are often included as well – and not merely as duplicate versions, but as unique drawings.
The pages also feature large color-coded maps showing the range of the species. Many field guides or books on animals can be pretty skimpy on the maps, usually leaving them black and white. I really appreciate the choice of the physical map. That extra bit of context is what makes one’s understanding of the natural history of a species that much more interesting. The setup of the page leaves you wanting for nothing, at least as far as anything I can personally imagine needing.
Overall, the book is about 580 pages of poison froggy goodness! I’m convinced this is a real treasure that should definitely find its way onto your bookshelf, or into your bag when you’re traveling to the Andean countries these frogs inhabit. I can enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who is interested in poison frogs and for any natural history book/field guide collector.
Truthfully, I will have to order a second copy! One for the often wet and dirty field life and one that can sit pretty on the shelf for me to look at while cozy at home in civilization.
You can order a copy from Ted through PayPal. Contact him at tedr.kahn(at)gmail.com. Signed copies are $65.00 which includes shipping in the USA. Buyers from other countries will pay for international shipping.
I’ve also received a copy of the Libro Rojo de los Anfibios de Colombia, a Spanish language book which you can also order from Ted. I’ll write up a review on that book and others I’ve recently purchased elsewhere in the next few days and weeks.