Friday, April 5, 2013

Confusing Carcharhinids: A Field Guide

Early April 2013

Carharinids are a shark group that is usually really difficult to identify! Usually you must look at the caption before confirming an ID of any photographed Carcharinid. Thats why the've been called "confusing carcharinids". Here, I'm reviewing a "Field Guide for Sharks of the Genus Carcharinus" by Matthias Voigt and Dietmar Weber.  I was really excited about the book when I first got it and flipped through it. Then I read a critical review by David Ebert, Director of the Pacific Shark Research Center (see Some of the things in this critical review ring true but maybe this experienced shark-man is a little too negative or overly-critical - not sure.... I understand, this appealing book may have some glitches, but it is a creation by two young men who really want to do something positive about sharks - create a field guide! The first author is a young guy who probably has this recent love affair with sharks, sharks are not his major academic pursuit. The second guy is an amazing scientific illustrator. 

Since I have written and edited natural history books, I know too well that "the devil is in the details". The authors need to have a couple of top elasmobranchologists review the book and need a really good English copy-editor too. So I would look forward to a revised edition. But basically, there are two things which I can say about this shark book, but of course I am not an expert on sharks: 

1) It really is field guide-like and this is showcased through the excellent scientific illustrations and consistent description. Ebert, the elasmobrachologist says: "The lateral view color illustrations of each individual Carcharhinus species are perhaps some of the best I have seen for this group of sharks, rivaling the outstanding color illustrations by Roger Swainston in the recent Sharks and Rays of Australia (Last and Stevens, 2009), and appear to be fairly accurate, at least for those species I am familiar with". So the book, although rather expensive, does have amazing technical illustrations and carefully researched descriptions. These help you to explore differences among very similar species. (The authors could have added R.T.Peterson's field mark arrows to highlight field id marks...). A good field guide helps you learn the key ID differences.

2) The text is a bit rough (sprinkled with grammatical and usage errors); the English could be much much better -its almost as bad as my Greek I think!!!  And the book could have described how sharks behave, their comparative morpho-dimensions and general "looks in the water". But it does say what potential "misidentifications" are possible for each species. (Anyway, its perhaps too "scientific" or "overly technical" a description I think - again the authors should learn to give more concise form from top-notch birding guide books).... BUT this book is a field guide!

In many respects this "scientific field guide" is really appealing as a book. And all who flip through it will realize how difficult it is to create a good field guide. The distinguished Natural Historian publisher, Fritz Pfeil really says it right in the preface; and to paraphrase him: You really need a field can't find all information on the internet nor in the taxonomic papers. And this kind of literature is not accessible to everybody. So you need a field guide book. (Have a look at the specialist titles available at this natural history publisher:

This is why I am advertising this book here. We need books like this - more of them. We need to be able to ID sharks not just by their DNA but also by their jizz - how they act, how they move, their dimensions in the water and careful comparison among similar species. I recommend the book. 

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