- The Natural History of Texas by Brian R. Chapman
It is an honor to review The Natural History of Texas. The authors are students of North American biogeographical ecology with long and distinguished careers studying vegetation, birds, and small mammals in relation to both aquatic and terrestrial habitats from Utah to North Carolina. Interestingly, this book on Texas follows, rather than precedes, their book covering North America. This sequence make sense when one considers that Texas's boundaries capture many ecoregions found at the continental scale; thus, many generalities developed in the broader synthesis carried over as foundation to be fleshed out with insights from each author's multidecade experience as wildlife biologists across Texas.
Although I grew up in Texas and teach field ecology classes that visit at least three ecoregions, I found each chapter totally engaging, as if reported from another planet. Repeatedly, the authors noted important geological and biological details either new to me or presented from a new perspective. As wildlife biologists, the authors describe ecoregions of Texas through the lens of how diverse species populations cope with survival and reproduction in changing environments. I cannot imagine a broad overview of Texas natural history of this quality emerging from another approach.
Each chapter considers geological history and land-form dynamics that generally set the boundaries of major ecoregions as well as habitat variations found therein. Superimposed on this geological mosaic is a climatic grid defined by a steep gradient of average rainfall with 10 inches lost each of 6 x 100 miles from Texas's eastern to western border (~60 inches to ~10 inches) and number of frost-free days increasing (~165 to ~330) from the northern to the southern border. Upon this framework the authors describe vegetation, common species, particular examples of physiological adaptations, food web relations, life history evolution, hybrid zones, and consequences of land use practices. The authors include text boxes describing great naturalists of the region, fascinating and little-known life cycles, ecological dynamics stories told by exposed fossils, and miscellaneous tales of early explorers and settlers. Descriptions of each of 12 ecoregions were organized so as to include roughly similar elements but also with appropriate variety that prevented cookie-cutter monotony. The authors are skillful in the use of imagery and metaphor to describe dynamic natural phenomena that photographs can't convey. Thus, they describe how current habitats on the geologically young Texas coast would seem to future generations ("the portraits that follow may in-deed be little more than yellowed snapshots in a dusty photo album") and what follows a rare cloud burst in arid west Texas ("where the torrents flow into arroyos, walls of water race downstream, tumbling a phalanx of rocks and woody debris and scouring the vegetation").
Not surprisingly, the strength of the book is consistent with the authors' experience and expertise; small vertebrates and most but not all the ecoregions are covered. As is, the text is a well-constructed scaffold that would allow a second edition to incorporate more insect natural history and an expansion of chapter 10 on South Texas Brushland. As written, it is weighted to the subtropical tip of Texas. Expanding on the larger core of this region, which once hosted large droves of wild cattle and horses, periodically exhibits massive butterfly outbreaks, and more recently has been impacted by the root plow and by the indirect effects of white-tail deer hunting, would make it more comparable in length and scope to the very excellent chapters 8 and 9 that deal with the southern Great Plains in Texas. In future editions, too, more could be made of what early explorers encountered and the lives of indigenous groups before the Comanche dominated the region on horseback. On the other end of history, updates could be added on such dynamic topics as invasive species, fracking, and climate change.
I greatly admire this book and strongly recommend it as text or...