by Whit Gibbons

July 25, 2004

I just finished reading the most impressive book on fishes that I have ever seen. "Fishes of Alabama" (Smithsonian Books, 2004) by Herbert T. Boschung, Jr., and Richard Mayden, with illustrations by Joseph R. Tomelleri, provides an outstanding comprehensive account of the geographic region with the highest fish biodiversity in North America. Because the 300-plus fishes discussed in the book represent more than half of the species native to the Southeast, the book will be useful for learning about fishes in all southern states, not just Alabama.

Because of its many stream and river systems, Alabama has the country's richest array of fishes, as well as aquatic snails, mussels, and turtles. The species diversity in the Mobile Basin alone rivals that of many higher profile systems, such as tropical rain forests. Explanations for the high diversity include a combination of climate, geology, and a vast range of aquatic habitats. As the state with more miles of navigable stream systems than any other, Alabama is a natural for showcasing animals that swim, and this book will make anyone appreciate the beauty and variability of its native fishes.

One of the notable achievements of "Fishes of Alabama" is that it will serve as both the definitive scientific work on southeastern fishes as well as a popular coffee-table book that is enjoyable to scan for its magnificent illustrations. The authors are professional ichthyologists with long-term field and museum experience. But you do not have to be an ichthyologist or a sports fisherman to enjoy looking at the 112 plates with as many as six superb illustrations per page. The pictures of the fishes are absolutely magnificent, as well as detailed and accurate.

The write-ups of species accounts are scholarly; the compilation of extensive charts of distribution patterns and conservation status are thorough; and the illustrated identification keys are clear and practical. Each account has information on the morphological and color characteristics that make the species distinctive. Accompanying each account are maps and descriptions of the distribution in Alabama and the United States, as well as sections on habitats, general biology, and conservation status.

The illustrations show the incredible color patterns of some of the country's most remarkable fishes; many are unknown to even avid anglers because they are not game fish and lots of them are small and secretive. For example, sports fishermen view some of the minnows known as shiners primarily as bait fish, but few know the range of variability in color that occurs among the group. Breeding males of the rainbow shiner, for example, have a blue head, a purplish or reddish stripe on the upper half of the body, with "powder blue below [and] iridescent flecks of lavender, pink, and silver over much of the body." And some of the small stream fish known as darters display vibrant color patterns of red, blue, green, and yellow on a single fish, a color display that rivals the most stunning tropical birds. More than 50 species of darters are found in Alabama, more than in any other state, and some are found nowhere else.

Unfortunately, 2 of Alabama's fish species have already become extinct, and Boschung and Mayden note that 124 species are imperiled. This means that, unless appropriate conservation measures are taken, more than a third of the fishes in the state could disappear before today's first-graders graduate from college. I like the authors' statement that "this is an alarming number and should awaken the public to realization that Alabama is on the brink of losing much of its biodiversity." But I regret that such a proclamation has to be made. Even grimmer is the fact that similar statements could be made for other groups of plants and animals, and not only for Alabama but for all southeastern states with high numbers of species.

I recommend this book to anyone, whether conservation biologist, ecologist, ichthyologist, or amateur naturalist. Anyone who reads it and looks at the illustrations will come away knowing more about fish than they did before and having a deeper appreciation for the intrinsic value of these denizens of Alabama's streams and rivers.

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