Book Review – Turtles as Hopeful Monsters

Turtles as Hopeful MonstersTurtles as Hopeful Monsters: Origins and Evolution

Written by Olivier Rieppel

Published in hardback by Indiana University Press in March 2017 in the Life of the Past series

Turtles have long vexed evolutionary biologists. In Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, Olivier Rieppel interweaves vignettes of his personal career with an overview of turtle shell evolution, and, foremost, an intellectual history of the discipline of evolutionary biology.

An initial, light chapter serves to both introduce the reader to important experts on reptile evolution during the last few centuries, as well as give an account of how the author got to study turtles himself. After this, the reading gets serious though, and I admit that I got a bit bogged down in the second chapter, which discusses the different historical schools of thought on where turtles are to be placed on the evolutionary tree. An important character here is skull morphology and a lot of terminology is used. Although it is introduced and explained, it makes for dense reading.

I think the book shines in the subsequent chapters that give a tour of the evolution of, well, evolutionary thinking.

When Darwin formulated his theories, he argued that evolution is a slow and step-wise process, with natural selection acting on random variation to bring about gradual change. This is the transformationist paradigm. Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 53The fossil record has yielded some remarkable examples where a slow transformation has occurred over time, such as the development of hooves in horses. But equally, there are many examples where no such continuous chain exists in the fossil record. Turtles are one such example, as they just suddenly appear in the fossil record, shell and all. Darwin himself attributed this to ‘the extreme imperfection of the fossil record‘. This lack of transitional fossils has of course been eagerly exploited by the creationist / intelligent design movement for their own ends.

But ever since Darwin, biologists have argued, and still do, that there exist mechanisms that allow for rapid innovation and saltatory evolution (i.e. evolution by leaps and bounds). This is the emergentist paradigm. Rieppel gives an overview of the different theories that have been put forward over the last two centuries, which is both illuminating and amusing. This covers such luminaries as Richard Goldschmidt (who coined the phrase “hopeful monsters”), Stephen Jay Gould (who revived it), and Günter Wagner (who provides the best current explanation according to Rieppel).

Just a little bit more about this phrase “hopeful monsters”, as this is such a prominent part of the book’s title. According to Goldschmidt, major new lineages would come about through mutations during early development of the embryo. This, of course, has the risk of producing monsters when the organism matures, likely resulting in premature death. So, Goldschmidt proposed a theory of hopeful monsters, where such drastic changes would successfully result in new evolutionary lineages with new body plans. His explanations, which required evolution to be goal-directed and cyclical (so-called orthogenetic evolution) have become obsolete, but he wasn’t entirely off the mark either. The best current explanations, according to Rieppel, comes from Wagner (author of Homology, Genes, and Evolution) and others who suggest radical changes to body plans do originate at the embryonic stage, and that the cause is the rewiring of the underlying genetic mechanisms.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 181The final two chapters of the book show how the debate over turtle shell evolution has gone back and forth between these two paradigms over time. Here again, Rieppel goes quite deep into morphology, this time of the shell, with accompanying terminology. Although the consensus seems to be leaning towards changes in embryonic development being responsible for the sudden appearance of the turtle shell in the fossil record, the final chapter deals with recent fossil finds from southwestern China that have revealed a potential missing link: a turtle with a fully developed belly shield.

Overall then, this book is a highly enjoyable romp through the intellectual history of evolutionary biology, using turtle evolution as its red thread. I could have used a bit more hand-holding here and there, and I feel the book would have benefited from an (illustrated) glossary or some extra illustrations. The reading gets quite technical when Rieppel goes into expositions on skull and shell morphology. That said, this book is an excellent addition to the popular science works in the Life of the Past series.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters is available to order from NHBS.

The Week in Review – 21st November

Sea turtles
Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are now endangered, making rehabilitation of injured individuals extremely important. Image by Dominic Scaglioni.

News from outside the nest

This week we learned all about…

The importance of protected areas for conserving the planet’s diversity. Many of our reserves are failing to live up to their promised potential through poor management

The strange wasting syndrome that is affecting many important species of starfish and the scientists that are working to manage this problem.

Rehabilitation of sea turtles over 400 miles from the ocean. At the Second Chance Program, located in Pittsburgh, injured turtles are prepared for reintroduction to the wild.

A new theory which suggests that life could exist on planets in the absence of water, thriving instead on supercritical carbon dioxide.

Flying under the influence: A drunk tank for birds, situated in the Yukon territory, opens for business.

And finally…the UK’s first number two bus (quite literally). Powered entirely by human sewage and food waste, this bus is now in service between Bristol and Bath.

New arrivals at the warehouse

This new Programmable Heated Bat Box lets you set maximum and minimum daily temperatures for each month of the year, as well as letting you set up and monitor up to four boxes remotely via an online interface.

The Nest Box Camera Starter Kit contains everything you need to start filming birds in your garden. It includes an FSC timber bird box pre-fitted with a camera and 30m cable. Simply plug into your TV and start watching the action.

The long awaited new addition of Docks and Knotweeds of Britain and Ireland features additional hybrids and adventives, new distribution maps and keys, as well as 67 outstanding illustrations by Anne Farrer.

Animal Weapons by Douglas Emlen lets us take a look at the extreme weapons of the natural world: teeth, horns and claws, alongside the weapons developed by humans since battle began.


Cold Blood author Richard Kerridge on reptiles and amphibians, and the ‘new nature writing’

Cold Blood jacket imageTell us about where you grew up and what inspired your early adventures with reptiles and amphibians.

I grew up in the south London suburbs, and some of my earliest memories involve images of animals – on television, in books and on the little picture cards I collected from tea packets. The wild animals of Africa and India fascinated me. I loved natural history books and stories about expeditions to find tigers and elephants. One of my fantasies was that I had a pet tiger, a huge male who would leap out and scare away boys who were trying to bully me. In my daydreams, as I walked home from school, the tiger would pad along beside me, out of sight behind the hedges.

But what could I actually encounter? Did England have any exciting animals to match the elephants and tigers? I read about otters, badgers and hawks, but they were far from my suburban experience, with its garden ponds and overgrown corners and strips. Foxes were elusive twilight animals. Reptiles and amphibians, however, were dramatic wild animals that could be found near my home. If I scaled down, the tangles of pondweed and banks of gorse and heather became forest and savannah, and the newts and lizards formidable megafauna. The theatricality of suddenly seeing one of these animals was important – the thrill, the intensity, of trying to edge closer without scaring away what at that moment always seemed to be the most vivid lizard yet, or the deepest-black newt. For me the animals represented the wildness that I felt was all around me, all around London, and all around Britain. They were emissaries from all the lakes, heaths, streams, scrubland, grassland and forest of the world.

Do you still have a bath tub full of lizards, frogs and snakes in your back garden?

For decades I didn’t keep any, after coming to feel in late adolescence that our hobby had been cruel and clumsy. By this time I was preoccupied with literature and politics, and teenage social and sexual life. And then I went to university to study literature, and was moving house every year. Throughout all this, the reptiles and amphibians still lived in brackeny parts of my mind, and I was always glad to see a real one.

After the contract had been secured for the book, I made an exception, and acquired some captive-bred hatchling European Green Lizards, which I keep in the garden, not in a bath but a large vivarium made of special Perspex that does not block UV light. The impulse to get them was part of the spirit of starting the book. And I do love having them. I always liked this species, which used to be sold commonly in British pet shops and lives wild on mainland Britain in one feral colony. They are an extraordinary powdery green. The young ones I have are beginning to come into adult colours.

How did your investigations develop? Since 1996 you have been Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – were you ever tempted to go into biology as a career?

I couldn’t have. At fourteen, when I had to choose my O-Level subjects, it was either Biology or History. You couldn’t do both, and History and English were my best subjects. I wasn’t good at sciences, and in those days people were mostly identified at about that age as either artists or scientists. If you were good at one, you didn’t have to worry about the other – that was the message.

My strongest interest, anyway, is in the emotional significance that wild nature has in people’s lives. Our conventional ways of talking and writing about natural history have in recent decades been rather shy of sophisticated emotional language. A split between scientific and artistic ways of thinking has occurred in popular natural history too, since the middle of the twentieth century. The ‘new nature writing’ is attempting, among other things, to bridge that gap, and to explore the ways in which the love of wild nature relates to other life experiences and to shared culture.

For those less keen on the reptile and amphibian fauna, could you share some fascinating facts that might break the ice?

The horror and fear that these animals arouse, snakes especially, is part of their glamour. They provoke strong reactions and feature regularly in thrillers when some sort of eerie spine-tingling villain is required. The fear is fascination. But, to break the ice, I would ask people to see the beauty of each animal’s relationship to its environment – the exquisite way in which a snake or lizard acquires and concentrates the subtle colours of heather, sand and bracken, and receives on its tongue the changing chemical information in the air. They are spirits of their places.

What prompted you to write the book, and do you think nature writing has a place in reorientating people’s attitudes towards wildlife, and the environmental and ecological concerns of our time?

The book has been inside me since childhood. At last – with support from my agent and editor, and inspired by seeing many students do it – I found the confidence to let the writing come. Nature writing has a part to play, I hope. There is a surge of this kind of writing in Britain at present. We are in what has been called ‘the nature writing moment’, and I don’t think the timing is accidental. It seems likely to me that people’s renewed interest in this genre comes from unease about environmental problems and the failure of our political system to respond to them – climate change most obviously, but other disturbing trends also, such as collapsing bird and fish populations and the prospect of a new industrialization of farming. People who read these books may be looking to find out what is happening to wild nature now, and what sort of meaning it can have in our lives. What happened over the proposed sell-off of public forests a couple of years ago was another sign. Politicians had forgotten that people cared about such things. Nature writing is no longer escapist, if that was ever a fair accusation. It is a genre that confronts some of our most important and contemporary challenges.

What advice would you share with amateur naturalists keen to explore the cold blooded inhabitants of their local patch?

Have a look at the Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK website and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust website. Make an online search pairing the name of your region with the name of the species you want to see. Or go out to any wetland or heathery heath near your home. For reptiles, choose a sunny day before 10.00 am or after 4.00 pm. Approach banks and verges quietly, watching for movements. When you get your eye in, you see animals you would not previously have noticed. Look under logs and pieces of wood, and especially flat pieces of metal. Slow worms often hide there, and sometimes snakes and toads. Shine a torch into ponds after dark. Expect surprises.

Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians



Book of the Week: The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles

Bo Beolens, Michael Watkins and Michael Grayson


Reveals the lives hidden behind the names of the world’s reptiles.

The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles jacket imageWhy?

Firstly this is a beautifully produced, satisfyingly stylish book! Now the superficial is out of the way, what’s inside?

Like Bo and co’s previous efforts along these lines – Whose Bird? and the Eponym Dictionary of Mammals – the Dictonary of Reptiles explores the lives of the historical figures ‘immortalised’ in the names of the world’s fauna. Some feature more heavily than others – Darwin, for instance, appearing in the names of nine reptiles (find out more in this post featuring an extract from the book), while other folk such as Dr. Ian Earle Ayrton Kirby (1921-2006), unearther of pre-Colombian artifacts and erstwhile Curator of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Museum – have the honour of a single beastly namesake – in this instance, Kirby’s Least Gecko, or Sphaerodactylus kirbyi.

This should be an addictive book for anyone interested in the finer details of natural history, the perfect gift for the herpetologist in your life who has everything (else), and will be of particular interest to bibliographic researchers since the titles and publication dates of any known literature written or edited by the subjects is given.


Bo BeolensMichael Watkins, and Michael Grayson are the co-authors of The Eponym Dictionary of Mammals, also published by Johns Hopkins.

Available Now from NHBS


Excerpts from the forthcoming Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles


The Eponym Dictionary of ReptilesThe Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles


Following the success of 2003’s Whose Bird? Men and Women Commemorated in the Common Names of Birds, and 2009’s Eponym Dictionary of Mammals, authors of the first two books Bo Boelens (AKA the fatbirder) and Michael Watkins, and joint third author of ‘Mammals’ Michael Grayson, have returned with this unmissable herpetological hoard.

The book is arranged by historical figure, under which are listed the reptiles named after that person, followed by a potted biography.

Here are three entries from the Dictionary:


Darwin’s Ringed Lizard Amphisbaena darwini Duméril & Bibron, 1839

Darwin’s Iguana Diplolaemus darwinii Bell, 1843

Darwin’s Tree Iguana Liolaemus darwinii Bell, 1843

Darwin’s Gecko Gymnodactylus darwini Gray, 1845

Darwin’s Marked Gecko Homonota darwinii Boulenger, 1885

Darwin’s Sea Snake Hydrelaps darwiniensis Boulenger, 1896

Darwin’s Leaf-toed Gecko Phyllodactylus darwini Taylor, 1942

Darwin’s Ground Skink Glaphyromorphus darwiniensis Storr, 1967

Darwin’s Wall Gecko Tarentola darwini Joger, 1984


Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) was the prime advocate, to­gether with Wallace, of Natural Selection as the way in which speciation occurs. To quote from his most famous work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection.” Darwin was the naturalist on ‘HMS Beagle’ on her scientific expedition round the world (1831-1836). In South America he found fossils of extinct animals that were similar to extant species. On the Galapagos Islands he notic­ed many variations among plants and animals of the same general type as those in South America. On his return to London he conducted research on his notes and specimens. Out of this study grew several related theories; evolution did occur; evolutionary change was gradual, taking thousands or even millions of years; the primary mechanism for evolution was a process called Natural Selection; and the millions of species alive today arose from a single original life form through a branching process called ‘speciation’. Four mammals, three amphibians and several birds (including those famous finches) are named after him.



Olive Ridley Turtle Lepidochelys olivacea Eschscholtz, 1829

Pernambuco Teiid Stenolepis ridleyi Boulenger, 1887

Ridley’s Worm Lizard Amphisbaena ridleyi Boulenger, 1890


Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855-1956) was a British botanist and collector on the island of Fernando de Noronha (1887), when he first reported the sightings of Olive Ridley Turtles in Brazil. However, it seems unlikely that the ‘Ridley’ in the turtle’s name refers to him. There are several theories including one that states that it was a ‘riddle’ where they came from and ‘riddle’ became pronounced ‘riddlie’ and so ‘ridley’. Ridley was known as ‘Mad Ridley’ or ‘Rubber Ridley’, as he was keen to get the rubber tree transplanted to British territory. He was Superintendent, Tropical Gardens, Singapore (1888-1912), where early experiments in growing the tree outside Brazil took place. He wrote The habits of Malay reptiles (1889). Two mammals and a bird are named after him.


Russell, P

Russell’s Viper Daboia russelii Shaw, 1797

Russell’s Sand Boa Eryx conicus Schneider, 1801

[Alt. Rough-scaled Sand Boa; Syn. Gongylophis conicus]

Russell’s Kukri Snake Oligodon taeniolatus Jerdon, 1853

[Alt. Streaked Kukri Snake]


Dr Patrick Russell (1726-1805) was a British surgeon and naturalist. He first went to India (1781) to look after his brother who was employed by the Honourable East India Company in Vizagapatnam. He became fascinated by the plants in the region and was appointed to be the Company’s Botanist and Naturalist, Madras Presidency (1785). He spent 6 years in Madras (Chennai) and sent a large collection of snakes to the British Museum (1791). One of his major concerns was snakebite and he tried to find a way for people to identify poisonous snakes, without first getting bitten and seeing what happened! The sand boa has his name attached to it because it appears to mimic Russell’s Viper: something he commented on in his A continuation of an account of Indian Serpents (1801).


The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and is due to be published on the 24th September 2011

Pre-Order Today

Four great books for wildlife gardeners

With wildlife conservation high on everyone’s agenda, here are some recommendations to introduce you to the natural diversity of your garden, and help you to create a haven for wildlife on your doorstep:

Four great books for wildlife gardeners

Guide to Garden Wildlife, by Richard Lewington, is a field guide to all the wildlife you might expect to encounter in the garden – from mammals, birds and insects to invertebrates and pond life. The species descriptions are full of useful detail, and Lewington provides the intricate illustrations that make this a real treasure of a handbook. There are informative sections on garden ecology, nest-boxes and bird feeders, and creating a garden pond.

Gardening for Butterflies, Bees and Other Beneficial Insects, by Jan Miller-Klein, homes in on practical techniques for encouraging insect diversity in your garden. A large-format tour through the seasons, with additional sections on tailored habitats, and species-appropriate planting, this beautifully photographed guide is perfect for every bug-friendly gardener looking to provide a good home for the full range of insect life.

RSPB Gardening for Wildlife: A Complete Guide to Nature-friendly Gardening, by Adrian Thomas, is a fantastic encyclopaedic introduction to how best to provide for the potential visitors to your garden, while maintaining its function for the family. A species-by-species guide to the ‘home needs’ of mammals, birds, insects and reptiles is followed by a substantial selection of practical projects, and helpful hints and appendices, to get your garden flourishing – whatever its size.

Dr Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-year Study, is a rare and illuminating book, in which is recorded – in scrupulous detail – the evidence of dramatic changes in populations in a single suburban garden in Leicester over a thirty-year period. An abundance of beautifully presented data, discussed in the context of wider biodiversity fluctuations, is balanced with numerous colour photographs, illustrations, and descriptive natural history of the residents of the garden. Modest in one sense, but unbelievably grand in timescale – and in its completeness – the rigorous effort and expertise that have been applied to the task of collecting and interpreting these data make this study a real one-off in the field of natural history writing.

Book of the Week: The Private Life of Adders

Continuing our weekly selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

The Private Life of Adders

by Rodger McPhail


An account of the life and behaviour of the adder – one of the UK’s six native reptile species.
The Private Life of Adders jacket image


Full of his own close-up photographs, this book is the result of McPhail’s own investigations into the natural history of the adder. The succinct chapters cover the range of subjects from basking, sloughing and venom to predation and the life-cycle. There are also appraisals of habitat management and conservation, and an appendix providing details of further resources. His love and enthusiasm for the countryside and its birds and animals are evident throughout this work which is brought to life by the rich variety of portraits – of adders, and their neighbours.


Rodger McPhail has had a life-long fascination with adders. Born in Lancashire in 1953, he studied at the Coventry Art College at Lanchester Polytechnic for one year before being accepted at Liverpool Art College in 1972. He is widely known as one of Britain’s most outstanding wildlife and sporting artists. His work is sought after internationally.

Available Now from NHBS

Five Photographic Guides to the Wildlife of Asia

New Holland have just published five new editions of these pocket-sized photographic guides – the perfect lightweight companion for the wildlife traveller.  At £7.99 these guides are great value, with clear colour photographs and concise accompanying text.

A Photographic Guide to Birds of Borneo jacket imageA Photographic Guide to Birds of China including Hong Kong jacket imageA Photographic Guide to Birds of the Philippines jacket imageA Photographic Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Sri Lanka jacket imageA Photographic Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Borneo jacket image

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians

174837[2] Brand New – Now in Stock at NHBS This detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands has been produced with the aim of inspiring an increased level of interest in these exciting and fascinating animals. It is designed to help anyone who finds a lizard, snake, turtle, tortoise, terrapin, frog, toad or newt to identify it with confidence.  

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians includes superbly illustrated introductory sections on the biology and conservation, taxonomy, life-cycle and behaviour of each species group; profiles of the 16 native reptiles and amphibians that breed in Britain, Ireland and the Channel islands and the 5 marine turtles that visit our seas; profiles of 7 established non-native species; distribution maps; hints and tips on where, when and how to watch reptiles and amphibians. Order your copy today

See internal scans from this book

Other recent arrivals include Lizards of Sri Lanka, Las Tortugas y los Cocodrilianos de los Paises Andinos del Tropico and Black Python: Morelia Boeleni.

Browse more new Reptile and Amphibian titles

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New Reptile and Amphibian Titles at NHBS – Summer 2009

New Holland European Reptile and Amphibian GuideRecently published and already a bestseller, the New Holland European Reptile and Amphibian Guide is now in stock at NHBS – order your copy today!

Other new field guides include Herpetofauna of Vietnam, European Pond Turtle and Field Guide to the Frogs of Australia.

New and upcoming scientific titles include The Rise of Amphibians, Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree and Snakes: Ecology and Conservation.



Herpetofauna of VietnamField Guide to the Frogs of Australia









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