»  About the Department

About the Department

Herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History has its roots in the Golden Age of global expeditionary biology and continues as one of the world's foremost centers of herpetological research. In 1870, one year after its founding, the American Museum of Natural History acquired the collections of the explorer and naturalist Alexander Philipp Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied. His collections included many important South American specimens that still are of great scientific relevance. Around this nucleus, additional collections of reptiles and amphibians accumulated rapidly. Before 1909 these materials were held under the care of a Curator of Zoology or in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. The Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology was founded in 1909 with four curators, the only herpetologist being Mary C. Dickerson. Ten years later, in 1919 the Department of Herpetology was formed under Dickerson's direction. Karl P. Schmidt, who subsequently became Curator of Herpetology at the Field Museum of Natural History, worked for Dickerson and her successor in the Department from 1916 to 1922. After an active career in the Museum, Dickerson retired after 1920 and died in 1923. Dickerson's most well-known herpetological work is The Frog Book (1906, Doubleday), an influential introduction to the natural history of these fascinating creatures, although she also published in lizard systematics and in 1901 wrote a book on Moths and Butterflies (Ginn & Company, Boston). (A brief biography is available in volume 23, number 5, of Natural History [1923].)

Gladwyn K. Noble came to the AMNH in 1917 as Assistant Curator, and succeeded Mary Dickerson as Chair of Herpetology in 1923 at the time of her death. Noble chaired Herpetology, subsequently renamed the Department of Herpetology and Experimental Biology, later becoming chair of two departments, Herpetology and the new department of Animal Behavior until his death in 1940. Under Noble the herpetological collections doubled, from 50,000 specimens in 1924 to 110,000 specimens in 1940. In many ways, Noble exemplified the Museum at the time, a period of enormous expeditions, among others, to China, the Congo, and the South Pacific. Noble's research interests were diverse, from experimental biology and comparative behavior to comparative anatomy and frog systematics. His nearly 200 publications remain highly influential today, especially those on comparative frog anatomy and systematics (e.g., Phylogeny of the Salientia, 1922; Biology of the Amphibia, 1931). During Noble's period a number of well-known herpetologists were employed in the Department: Clifford H. Pope (1921-1934), Charles E. Burt (1929-1930), Karl F. Kauffeld (1935-1936), Arthur I. Ortenburger (1922-1924), and Charles M. Bogert (1936-68). Noble died in 1940, still a young man at 47, the victim of an infection that only a few years later would have been easily treated with penicillin.

Charles M. Bogert came to the museum in 1936 and succeeded Noble as Department Chairman, a position he held until his retirement in 1968. During his 32 years at the museum he produced an extremely distinguished body of research, which remains highly influential today, particularly his work on patch-nosed snakes, the helodermatid lizards, thermal biology of amphibians and reptiles, snake dentition, and his general body of taxonomic work in Mexico. Bogert retired in 1968 to New Mexico and died in 1992. James Oliver joined the staff for a short time before and after World War II, leaving to become Curator, then Director of the Bronx Zoo, and subsequently Director of the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1954 Richard G. Zweifel arrived and, following Bogert's retirement, served two terms (1968-1980) as Department Chairman. In 1989, after 35 years of distinguished publication and service to the herpetological community, Zweifel retired, but continues his research from the AMNH Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona as Curator Emeritus.

Charles W. Myers joined the staff in 1968 as Bogert's replacement and served as Chairman from 1980-1987, 1993-1998. Myers' research has revolved around the herpetofauna of Central and South America, focusing primarily on animals that occur in scenic locations such as dart-poison frogs and snakes of the genus Rhadinaea. In January 1999, Myers retired from active service but continues his research as Curator Emeritus.

Charles J. Cole joined the curatorial staff in 1969, marking the first time since the 1920's that the department had been staffed by three curators. Cole's research has focused largely on the mechanisms and patterns of evolution of unisexual lizards, primarily, but not restricted to Cnemidophorus. His work has also encompassed the karyological evolution of several groups, including Sceloporus, assessing the herpetological diversity of reptiles and amphibians in Guyana, as well as working on the phylogenetic relationships within various groups of teiid lizards. In July 2003, Cole retired from active service but continues his research as Curator Emeritus.

In 1990, Darrel R. Frost joined the staff, replacing Richard G. Zweifel, who had retired the year earlier. Frost's activities have been focused on the theory and practice of systematics, primarily through study of various iguanian lizard groups, and more recently, on all amphibians.

Christopher J. Raxworthy joined the curatorial staff in 2000, replacing Charles W. Myers, who retired in 1999. Raxworthy's research is focused on Old World reptile systematics and biogeography, especially in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean. Current research includes chameleon systematics and field survey work in remote montane areas of northern Madagascar

David Kizirian joined the permanent staff as Curatorial Associate in 2005. His primary responsibility is management of collection operations. Kizirian's interests include the evolution and systematics of various groups of squamates.