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Spotlight on Amateur Naturalists
Contributions to Vertebrate Zoology
Describing and Classifying New Species
For a natural historian, the discovery of a new species can be a career defining event, as it enduringly links a scientist's name to a creature unique in Earth's history. However, recognizing that an organism is new to science is only one step in the study of taxonomy. The term "Taxonomy" is Greek in origin with "taxos" = arrangement and "nomos" = science or in modern vernacular, the science of classification. Taxonomists are concerned with discovering, describing, and classifying organisms into groups, thus giving us a better understanding of the diversity of life on our planet. There are over 50,000 known living species of vertebrates in the world. Many of these species were discovered or described by amateur naturalists.
One of the most prolific taxonomists was a medical officer in the East Indian Army named Pieter Bleeker (1819-1878). Bleeker was a trained physician, but he had a stronger passion for natural history. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain a position at the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie in Leiden, Bleeker joined the East Indian Army and spent the next 18 years stationed in Indonesia as a medical surgeon. The fauna of Indonesia was poorly documented at that time, and Bleeker, in his spare time, methodically began describing species unknown to science, primarily fish. Upon his retirement from the military in 1860, Bleeker returned to the Netherlands to oversee the publication of his discoveries. His beautifully illustrated multi-volume work Atlas Ichthyologigue was published between 1862-1878 and is considered the first significant tome on the highly diverse marine fauna of the Indo-Pacific waters. In addition to the Atlas, Bleeker published hundreds of articles in scientific journals and collected thousands of specimens, many of which can be found in the Rijksmuseum today. He ultimately described 1925 new species, 743 of which are still considered valid today.
Frank Wall (1868-1950), a British medical doctor, was a leading expert on the snakes of the Indian Empire at the turn of the 20th century. Wall studied medicine in England and entered the Indian Medical Service in 1894. During his military career he was stationed in India, Ceylon, and Burma and was able to collect and describe several species, including a snake named after himself, Wall's krait (Bungarus walli). A few of his notable works include A Monograph of the Sea-Snakes (Hydrophiinae) (1909), and the Snakes of Ceylon (1921). Upon his retirement from military service he donated his collection to the British Museum.
Adolpho Lutz (1855-1940), a doctor of tropical medicine from Brazil, was known for his interest in the taxonomy and natural history of frogs. Though an avid natural historian, Lutz entered into medicine as a practical means of making a living. He became one of Brazil's greatest physicians, specializing in tropical diseases and parasites. Still he remained involved in herpetology and collected specimens throughout Brazil, including remote interior regions. Lutz published numerous descriptions of species new to science, but they were often lacking in detail. Fortunately the accompanying illustrations are of sufficient quality to determine the diagnostic characteristics of these species.
Laurence Monroe Klauber (1883-1968) had a childhood fascination with reptiles, but pursued a career as an electrical engineer. He worked his way through the ranks at the San Diego Gas and Electric Company, ultimately becoming its CEO. His interest in reptiles was rekindled in his late thirties, and with the encouragement of professional herpetologists, he began an intense collecting program in the American Southwest. Klauber published many scientific articles on the systematics and life history of reptiles, including the descriptions of 53 new species and subspecies of amphibians and reptiles, mostly in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. However his main passion was rattlesnakes. His magnum opus, Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind was first published in 1956. Klauber was mentor to many other naturalists who went on to professional careers, including Charles Bogert, who became curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and an expert on frogs.
James Randy McCranie, a postman by profession, has published over 50 new species names and has contributed over 100 peer-reviewed articles on reptiles and amphibians to the scientific literature. Two of his books, coauthored with Larry David Wilson, The Herpetofauna of the Mexican State of Aguascalientes (2001) and The Amphibians of Honduras (2002), illustrate his careful scholarship.
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