JoVonn G. Hill and John A. Barone, eds. 2018. Southeastern Grasslands: Biodiversity, Ecology, and Management. Published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 344 p. Hardbound, $54.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1988-5
Southeastern Grasslands: Biodiversity, Ecology and Management is a collection of 20 research and review articles that focus on the floristics, conservation, and ecological history of grassland prairies in the southeastern United States. The volume “was inspired by the” 2012 Southeast Prairie Symposium and is a varied tribute to a unique and disappearing biome that has been reduced to less than 10% of its original range. Human encroachment, climate change, and invasive species have virtually eradicated the open grasslands that once dotted the USA from east Texas to the Atlantic Coast.
The book was written “with a broad audience in mind,” however, each chapter is written in a research format with Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections suggesting the more likely audience comprises academic and conservation scientists. Because each chapter was inspired by a 15 minute research talk, chapters are concise with discussion sections closer in length to an abstract. And although this book is not directly marketed as a textbook, the hardcover has the weight and dimensions of a standard textbook at 9 × 12 inches and 5.4 pounds, so it is a rather large book to lug around and after carrying the book between my office and home more than a few times the binding started to fray and a few pages came loose. The text is rather large with wide spacing and broad margins, so there is a lot of white on each page. Although the publishers designed the book to mimic a university text, the density of the material does not merit such a large and cumbersome tome. By comparison, Raven: Biology of Plants, 8th edition, is the same dimension and weight but with twice the number of pages and information. For the sake of the consumer, the publisher could have been more economical by publishing this work with a smaller type, paper size, and gauge.
As an old-school taxonomist, I found it disappointing that the editors chose not to maintain nomenclatural consistency throughout the text. For example, in chapter 5, “Floristics of the Louisiana Cajun and Inland Priaries,” and chapter 7, “Vegetation and Flora on Lowlands in the Central Black Belt of Mississippi,” Sambucus nigra is treated under the Caprifoliaceae; however, in chapter 6, “The Native Flora of Grasslands and Associated Woodlands in the Grand Prairie Ecoregion of Eastern Arkansas,” S. nigra is treated in the Adoxaceae. Also in chapter 5, Acer is treated in the Aceraceae, and in chapters 6 and 7, it is placed in the Sapindaceae. Similarly, in chapters 5, 6, and 7, Thyrsanthella difformis is referred to under the genus Trachelospermum which was demonstrated over a decade ago to be polyphyletic (Livshultz et al. 2007) with the New World species T. difforme clearly distinct from the Asian taxa. There are numerous other taxonomic inconsistencies throughout the book. I find this troublesome, considering that this book emphasizes the pressing need to conserve our nation’s grasslands, and yet a backbone of endangered species management is precise species identification. The failure to maintain taxonomic consistency in a research focused text only helps to solidify the pervading thought that taxonomy is an archaic science subject to arbitrary rules not worthy of serious academic attention.
Overall, I found the individual chapters interesting and informative (especially chapter 8 exploring the historical distribution of Osage Orange). However, other than sharing geography, the collected works lack synthesis. Just like the presentations at the symposium on which the volume is based, the chapters are individual units that require no prior knowledge or understanding of the previous unit. I would not recommend this book as a standalone textbook for a course on grasslands. However, given the broad range of subjects and chapter lengths, this volume would provide a wonderful text to a senior seminar course on the Conservation and Ecology of Grasslands, and it should definitely be a standard reference for any conservationist working to preserve the Grasslands of the Eastern United States.