BOOKS: Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery In Nature

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1997:

Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery In Nature
by Harry W. Greene. Photos by Michael & Patricia Fogden.
University of California Press (2120 Berkeley Way,
Berkeley, CA 94720), 1997. 351 pages, hardback, $45.

Harry W. Greene, curator of
herpetology at the University of
California’s Museum of Vertebrate
Zoology, had the bad luck to be awaiting
the imminent publication of his
opus, the summation of everything
known about snake evolution, just as
Michael Caldwell of the Field Museum
in Chicago and Michael Lee of the
University of Sydney announced perhaps
the most important paleontological
find about snakes ever––”The missing
link between the snake and the lizard,”


Lee explained, unearthed by the late
geologist George Haas near Jerusalem
in 1978, but misidentified then as a
lizard. Bone-by-bone reappraisal
revealed a probable ancestral association
with mosasaurs, gigantic seagoing
lizards of the Jurassic epoch, whose
closest living relatives are Komodo
dragons. Apparently snakes, like other
land species, emerged from the sea;
returned much later, as ancestral
marine mammals also would; and then
came back to land, in many separate
reinvasions associated with climatic
change and continental drift.
Frustrated though Greene
must have been, he did anticipate the
discovery with extensive discussion of
the evolution of sea snakes as well as
land snakes, and of the relationships
among them.
There are many extensively
illustrated volumes about snakes, but
we’ve seen no others delving as deeply
into as many different aspects of herpetology
and associated human culture.
Snakes probably offers a lot more than
even the most dedicated enthusiasts are
likely to absorb consecutively. But
Snakes is a book to which one will refer
again and again, and each time read
whole new sections.

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