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Book Review - Savannah Monitors by Robert Sprackland Print E-mail
Book Review from mampam.com ©Daniel Bennett 2002
Book Review: Savannah and Grassland Monitors
Robert George Sprackland. 2000. 70 pages. The Herpetocultural Library, Advanced Vivarium Systems, Mission Viejo, California.
Rating (out of 10) = 2

 

The last book on savannah monitors of the twentieth century, or the first of the twenty first? Savannah and Grassland Monitors contains "details of the husbandry and breeding of savannah, white-throat and Argus monitors with an emphasis on responsible ownership".

Firstly the captivity section. Despite the sound advice given about longevity, selecting healthy animals and the need for adequate space, I found myself deeply unhappy with the section on captive care. Suggesting nighttime temperatures down to 44oF is not helpful, nor is omitting to recommend any range of basking temperatures. Dr Sprackland adheres to the policy of providing the animals with a hard floor, whilst the rest of the monitor breeding world seems strongly in favour of a soft substate that the animals can dig in. More convenient seems to be the message here. Similarly the ominous claim that monitors readily consume putrid carrion and that "many populations may make carrion a staple of their diet " (???) precedes the suggestion that beef is a good staple food for captives because it is cheap and it doesn't smell. "Very reasonably priced dog food" is another suggestion. I hoped he might add that the lizards could survive on a diet of whole animals, but instead the following paragraph talks about monitors eating pasta, lettuce and fruit and ends with the preposterous claim that "given the highly irregular availability of foods in savannah habitats, such broad tastes may be an essential element in surviving in the wild state". This left me in such a state of shock that I nearly missed some rather better dietary recommendations further down the page. But it was too late, the damage had been done. Novice reptile keepers would unquestionably get entirely the wrong impression from this chapter. Lizards that were unlucky enough to get the beef and cheap dog food diet would be horrified to learn that although they should eat daily as juveniles, by the time they are 20 inches long they should get food twice a week, and when they have grown another 8 inches a weekly feeding will suffice. Any lizard able to reach four feet in length on this diet will qualify for just one large feeding every 2-3 weeks. The need for a hard floor becomes clear; it's because the infrequent feces from the beef and cheap dog food diet makes a mess of the cage. Doubtless they will smell rather unpleasant too, and Dr Sprackland is thoughtful enough to recommend a "wonderful" terrarium deodorizer (I am not making this up, honest).

I finished the book feeling very disappointed. Dr Sprackland's ideas about keeping monitor lizards in captivity have not progressed with the rest of the world and this book represents one of the worst of a very bad bunch of books about savannah monitors that have been published over the last ten years. Hard floors, cold temperatures, foul and infrequent food and deodorants are very bad messages to be giving out to the thousands of people who buy savannah monitors every year. The book really tries to make it easy to keep monitor lizards, but the convenience is very much at the expense of the animals.

Reading the book fully it occurs to me that it may have been written in some haste. The organization is very poor and it is riddled with factual errors, some of which I comment on below. But my biggest criticism is the lamentable section on husbandry.

Dr Sprackland states (page 23) that Nile monitors are not creatures of grasslands but inhabit forests and deserts. They are common in savannah habitats in many parts of Africa, but do not occur in deserts and are only rarely found in forests (where they are replaced by V. ornatus).

V. albigularis we learn is "more apt to be found in jungle areas than are other similar species". I am not aware that the species has ever been reliably reported from areas of wet forest, nor am I convinced by Dr Sprackland's assertion that V. albigularis and V. exanthematicus have "similar ecologies".

The statement that V. exanthematicus teeth remain pointed throughout life whilst those of V. albigularis undergo an ontogenetic shift to become broad snail crushers, is incorrect; in both species a shift to heavier dentition is evident with age.

The picture on Page 24 is exanthematicus, not albigularis.

Within the section on African Varanids come a very confused (and confusing) two paragraphs about Indian monitors. The first states that V. flavescens is a savannah dweller with similar habits to V. albigularis, whereas in fact this species occurs in marshlands and appears to have a very different lifestyle to any African monitor lizard. The paragraph ends tantalizingly "This Asian species is actually much more closely related to the Bengal and Indian monitors". The mystery deepens at the start of the next paragraph "At present Indian monitors are legally considered to be subspecies of the Bengal monitor". What does it mean? We move on swiftly to the next section (on Asian varanids) in the hope of elucidation, only to learn that the Argus monitor (V. panoptes) is indigenous to New Guinea. The next page admits to it also occurring in Australia and then a key to distinguish Indian and Bengal monitors, which reveals the Bengal monitor to be V. bengalensis bengalensis (found throughout India and Pakistan) and "Indian" monitor to be V. bengalensis nebulosus, a subspecies that has never been found (to my knowledge) within the political boundaries of India, but occurs from Burma south as far as central Indonesia. Dr Sprackland is aware of these distributions so why he has chosen the name Indian monitor for the race that does not live in India is a bit of a mystery.

Varanus olivaceus is on CITES appendix 2, not appendix 1.

 
 

 

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Varanus bitatawa

Varanus bitatawa is the third species of  monitor lizard to be recognised by science that belongs to the "Pandan Biawak" group,  all of which are of at least as great a conservation concern as the Komodo dragon, but receive virtually none of the attention. Pandan Biawak occur only in lowland dipterocarp forest. The first species (Varanus olivaceus or Butaan) was discovered in 1845 and not seen alive by a scientist until the late 1970s. The next species (Varanus mabitang or Mabitang) was discovered in 2001 and in 2010 Varanus bitatawa (Butikaw or Bitatawa) was described. Other species of frugivorous monitor lizards may remain undescribed, but many may have  gone extinct without ever having been recognised.

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