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Classic 19th Century Text Informs Modern Herpetology

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In the course of his work studying the reptiles and amphibians of Madagascar, Associate Curator Christopher J. Raxworthy often refers to a classic 19th-century herpetological text: Erpétologie générale, by André-Marie-Constant Duméril, of the Paris Museum of Natural History.

Chamaeleo [now Furcifer] verrucosus, drawing from Dumeril's Erpétologie générale
Christopher J. Raxworthy, an associate curator in the Division of Herpetology at the Museum, often consults the work from which this image comes: Called Erpétologie générale, ou histoire naturelle complète des reptiles, it was published in volumes from 1834 to 1854. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

It’s a work that Raxworthy says is quite important, so he jumped at the chance to highlight it as part of the recently released book Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library

An excerpt from Natural Histories about Erpétologie générale appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine. 

Featuring 40 essays by Museum curators and other specialists, Natural Histories (Sterling Signature, 2012) was edited by Tom Baione, the Harold Boeschenstein Director of Library Services at the Museum; the book showcases spectacular holdings from the Museum Library’s Rare Book Collection. (Purchase it at

“This was the first attempt to bring together a complete review of all reptile and amphibian species in the world,” says Dr. Raxworthy of Erpétologie générale, published in volumes between 1834 and 1854.

Like Duméril, Raxworthy studies species diversity, specifically the evolutionary history of chameleons and geckos in Madagascar, which evolve in isolation on the island country; most of Madagascar’s amphibian species exist nowhere else.

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Conserving these rare species is another aspect of Raxworthy’s work. By combining satellite information about terrain and climate with records about where chameleons have been found in the past, he has developed models to predict new chameleon habitats. Knowing, or at least predicting, where species live is the first step to protecting them, says Raxworthy.

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.