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Classifying Amphibians

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Like the 18th-century German naturalist August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof, whose beautifully illustrated Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium (Natural history of the native frogs) he describes in an essay in Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library, Curator Darrel R. Frost has created a comprehensive reference about amphibians.


Dr. Frost’s, however, is a decidedly 21st-century endeavor. He manages Amphibian Species of the World, an online database and classification system for about 7,000 amphibian species, of which about 6,200 are frogs.

The database lists all scientific and English names, and their synonyms, for each species; it also references not only the papers in which each name was introduced, but also all the literature that has allowed scientists to construct the amphibian tree of life. Species in the database have as many as 50 names coined by different researchers at different times.

For example, the common toad (widespread in Europe), Bufo bufo, has 53 Latin synonyms—with references dating from 1554 to 2010—and four English names. The list of synonyms, presented in the order that they were introduced, is a “nomenclatural history” for each species, Frost says.

Bufo bufo
A couple of Bufo bufo, the common toad, during migration

The database also has an important role in conservation efforts. Launched as a print publication in the 1980s, it has helped the implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which today lists 131 amphibians as regulated species. The current database serves as a dictionary for species names so that regulators of wildlife trade can “speak the same language,” says Frost.

Learn more Dr. Frost's work in the video below.

Edited by Tom Baione, the Museum's Library Director, Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (Sterling Signature) showcases 40 essays about spectacular holdings from the Rare Book Collection.

A version of this article, and an excerpt from Dr. Frost's essay, appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.