Herpetology at AMNH

Part of the Lizards and Snakes: Alive! exhibition.

The American Museum of Natural History's Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology was founded in 1909, and in 1919 Herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles) became an independent Department of Herpetology under its first curator, Mary C. Dickerson. The Department of Herpetology has its roots in the great expeditionary period of the late 19th and 20th century great and continues today as one of the world's foremost centers of research on reptiles and amphibians. The Department's curators, research associates, and students maintain active research programs on the diversity and evolution of reptiles and amphibians worldwide, as well as in the theory and practice of the science of determining the evolutionary relationships among organisms.

The Museum's collection of amphibians and reptiles, is one of the most heavily used herpetological resources in the world, ranks among the world's five largest such collections. The collection maintains more than 360,000 specimens representing more than 7,000 species (roughly half the world's known species) of frogs, toads, salamanders, alligators, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, turtles, and includes specimens from nearly every country on Earth, with particularly noteworthy holdings from Africa, Madagascar, China, Vietnam Australia, New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, Pakistan, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, South America, and the United States. The oldest specimens in the collection include Fence Lizard scales found in a fossilized pack-rat nest dating to the Pleistocene (28,000 years ago) and and a gecko that was wrapped in an Egyptian mummy dating to 2010 BCE. The earliest acquisitions of the collection were acquired in 1870 from the estate of Prince Maximilian von Wied, the great explorer of coastal Brazil and of the Missouri River. Specimens range in size from giant tortoises, Komodo Dragons, and Salt-water Crocodiles to the tiniest frogs, salamanders, and geckos, some of which would be comfortable sitting on a dime. Other highlights include a large collection of frog call recordings, color paintings of specimens in life from expeditions to China, and approximately 5000 tissue samples for genetic analysis, stored in the Monell Cryo-collection.

Beyond with the Department's traditional collections of skeletons, cleared-and-stained, and whole alcoholic specimens, the Museum's herpetologists avail themselves of the Museum's frozen tissue collection, with a one-million-sample capacity, which supports a broad range of research in herpetological genomics. The Department of Herpetology has deposited more than 5,000 tissue samples in this facility and thousands more are currently being processed into that collection from around the globe. These tissues are the source materials for the Museum's molecular laboratories, which house three DNA sequencers as well as a powerful, highly sophisticated parallel-computing facility. The facility enables Museum herpetologists to determine phylogenies, or evolutionary trees, from massive amounts of data that range from fossil traits to DNA sequences.

Darrel R. Frost, Associate Dean of Science for Collections and Curator-in-Charge, studies the evolutionary origin and diversification of reptiles and amphibians. He maintains a comprehensive online catalog of the world's living amphibians, the Amphibian Species of the World database, which allows scientists from around the world to keep track of the rapid advances in knowledge of global frog diversity. Dr. Frost started to develop this project in 1980 and continually updates this online reference to make it readily useful to professional herpetologists. In the past ten years especially, Dr. Frost has brought the online catalog to a new level of sophistication by including enormous amounts of new literature on species, identifying synonymies (all the available names for a particular species), adding the 2400 amphibian species named since 1985, expanding abstracts of relevant taxonomic literature, and adding English (or common) names to the database. In 2000, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an organization that oversees an international agreement to ensure that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, adopted the Amphibian Species of the World online database as an official reference on amphibian taxonomy.

Dr. Frost and his colleagues recently completed the largest analysis ever of the evolutionary relationships among all living amphibians; in fact, it is the largest analysis of its kind of any group of vertebrate animals. The resulting evolutionary tree provides biologists with a dramatically improved basis and common language for addressing questions about amphibian evolution, life histories, biodiversity, global distribution, conservation, and extinction. Dr. Frost has also published extensively on the evolutionary relationships among the entire group of New World lizards called Iguania, comprising about 1,000 species in the Americas, Madagascar, Fiji, and Tonga. He also has published research on the study of the grounds of knowledge-claims in systematic and evolutionary biology, such as the notion of "species" used in these fields.

Christopher J. Raxworthy, Associate Dean of Science for Education and Exhibition and Associate Curator, has published extensively on amphibian and reptile evolutionary biology, taxonomy, behavior, life history, conservation biology, and ecology. Much of his research has focused on the herpetofauna of Madagascar, the Indian Ocean, and Africa, and he and his colleagues have discovered and published descriptions of many new species, and published ground-breaking papers on the evolutionary relationships among chameleons, geckos, tortoises, and amphibians. He has maintained an active field program in Madagascar since 1985, which has resulted in substantial research collections (including tissues) being deposited at AMNH, the University of Antananarivo, and the University of Michigan. This program also includes the training of graduate students. Four PhD and 11 Masters have been awarded under Dr. Raxworthy and 7 students are currently being mentored by Dr. Raxworthy.

The Department's impressive curatorial and scientific support staff, combined with its vast specimen collection and related research facilities, promises a future of significant and fascinating advances in the study of reptile and amphibian evolution and life histories.