Herpetology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History
The Section of Herpetology maintains a collection of more than 230,000 specimens and ranks at about the ninth largest amphibian and reptile collection in the United States. Ninety-five percent of the specimens are fluid-preserved. Other specimens are preserved as skeletons, skins, mounts, or cleared and stained preparations.
The Section of Herpetology Collection
South Africa 1,018
Sri Lanka 940
North America 190,000+
United States 150,000+
Costa Rica 1,859
New Zealand 79
South America 9,400
- by Jennifer Sheridan Part of the fun of being a new curator is getting to know the collections. In preparing for an …Read More »
- By Jennifer A. Sheridan Last week the amphibian and reptile unit acquired a valuable specimen—a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). This species is federally …Read More »
- By Jennifer Sheridan The Section of Herpetology has welcomed a new curator—me! I’m happy to be writing this blog post as a …Read More »
History of the Section of Herpetology
D. A. Atkinson began as an undergraduate student while attending Western University of Pennsylvania, later renamed the University of Pittsburgh. Atkinson was an overall naturalist, which was common at the time, and added specimens to many of the collections at the museum. He spent one full summer in 1899 surveying Allegheny County, providing the baseline data for studies that would follow later. After further schooling, Atkinson obtained a medical degree but continued to be connected with the museum. He was an integral partner in a number of field trips to several counties in Pennsylvania and one grand collection trip through Oklahoma and Texas, which provided a number of specimens that were mounted for exhibit. Atkinson accompanied former Carnegie Museum of Natural History Botany Curator Otto Emory Jennings on a trip to Isle of Pines in 1910. Atkinson served Amphibians and Reptiles as a field collector from 1900 to 1902, a volunteer custodian from 1907 to 1914, and an honorary curator from 1923 to 1938. He was instrumental in laying the foundation of the collection, collecting well more than 4,000 specimens.
Lawrence Griffith, PhD, custodian and honorary curator to the Section of Herpetology was a professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh and a snake specialist. He began cataloguing some of the early specimens obtained from Herbert Huntington Smith and John D. Haseman, both of whom had made interesting acquisitions in South America. Griffith had done previous fieldwork in the Philippines, but his field trips while in Pittsburgh were to California, Arizona, New Mexico, and New Jersey, where he collected more than 800 specimens. His tenure here was from 1915 to 1920, and he functioned more as an honorary curator, though his title was custodian. He published a number of important papers during his stay and built much of the South American collection.
M. Graham Netting’s association with Carnegie Museum of Natural History started when he was an 18-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh, working initially in the Section of Birds for the sum of 35 cents an hour. He began to also work in the Section of Herpetology in 1924 and became the first full-time staff member in the section in 1926 upon graduation. In 1928, Netting left to pursue a doctorate at the University of Michigan. The stock market crash interrupted his pursuit of his doctorate, and he came back to his beloved museum.
Netting was the consummate curator and “museologist” before the term had been invented. Netting began building and organizing a strong collection from the bits and pieces contributed prior to his employment and using the aforementioned associates. Netting initially went on field trips to various parts of Pennsylvania and to California in 1925. By 1927, he had visited Guadeloupe, Barbados, and Trinidad. He returned to South America in 1929, visiting Trinidad and Venezuela, continuing into 1930 spending five months in the field. After this trip, his attention was drawn to the Appalachian region of eastern North America, primarily concentrating on salamanders, but still collecting all groups from North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and states in between. Additionally, Netting travelled to Panama in 1934. He facilitated relationships with quite a number of herpetologists and either persuaded them to donate their collections here, provide funds to help with field work, or purchase their specimens. Important collections were obtained from Roger Conant and others from eastern Pennsylvania, Paul and David Swanson from northwestern Pennsylvania, and others such as John Dolan, Coleman Goin, Carl Gans, James A. Fowler, Neil Richmond, Leonard Llewellyn, and N. Bayard Green, who provided specimens from wide-ranging regions of the United States. There was also growth in the early years from outside the United States with collections from Africa by Albert Irwin Good (ca. 1,500 specimens) and Rudyerd Boulton (1,000 specimens), South America by Jose Steinbach (1,200 specimens), and the Philippines with an important collection from Edward H. Taylor (more than 2,000 specimens).
By 1949, the Section of Herpetology collection had grown to almost 58,000 specimens and was one of the top collections in the country. Netting kept meticulous records and was aware early in his career of the importance of locality information and geography. Netting also taught geography, zoology, and herpetology from 1944 to 1963 at the University of Pittsburgh and was secretary of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists from 1931 to 1947 and later as president from 1948 to 1950.
Netting was a curator from 1931 to 1954. From 1949 to 1953, he also served as assistant director. In 1954, Graham became director of Carnegie Natural History Museum and served until 1975 when he retired to a house near Powdermill Nature Reserve, the museum's environmental research station that he helped create in the mid-1950s. He helped found many of the environmental organizations in Pennsylvania, including the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the concept of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Because of the increased importance of the Section of Herpetology collection, along with the administrative duties in which Netting became involved, a second employee in the section was hired.
Grace Orton worked at Carnegie Museum of Natural History from 1945 to 1950 after obtaining her degree from the University of Florida, concentrating her study on early development in frogs. She built a substantial collection of comparative stages for many amphibian species with more than 400 developmental series.
Neil D. Richmond
Neil D. Richmond was hired to replace Orton in 1951. He had a long association with Carnegie Museum of Natural History, initially through Netting when he was doing fieldwork in West Virginia. Richmond had surveyed much of West Virginia when he was employed at Marshall College from 1938 to 1939, and Netting had spent much time in that state doing field work. Richmond also had spent a fair amount of time in Pennsylvania doing field work in the state mammal survey from 1948 to 1949. While serving as curator until 1972, he conducted fieldwork in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and he conducted four expeditions to the Bahamas, ultimately depositing close to 5,000 specimens in the collection.
CJ “Jack” McCoy
CJ "Jack" McCoy was hired as an assistant curator in 1964 and immediately began to have a major impact. Like Netting, McCoy had been trained in collection management and began a rigorous program to curate and update the collection and then to build the collection through exchange and friendships with colleagues.
Unlike most of the predecessors in the section, McCoy was more interested in reptiles, doing most of his previous research on lizards but with occasional papers on snakes. Beginning in the mid-1970s he added turtles into the mix and over the next two decades built one of the largest turtle collections in North America.
McCoy befriended a large group of field researchers over his span as curator from 1964 until he passed away in 1993. Many of them considered him their mentor, and he instilled in them a great desire to understand the environment through amphibians and reptiles. The section had unprecedented growth over those 30 years, adding at least 100,000 specimens. The collections came here by purchase, targeted fieldwork, orphaned collections, or surveys conducted either through McCoy or from friends who sent the collections here for safekeeping. The collaborators are almost too many to name, but a few of the most important contributors include Richard C. Vogt, Michael A. Ewert, Stephen D. Busack, Paul S. Freed, Edwardo C. Welling, Donald E. Hahn, Arthur C. Hulse, Anthony C. Krzysik, Stephen R. Williams, Edward O. Moll, Barry Valentine, Andrew H. Price, David J Morafka, James J. Bull, Russell J. Hall, Robert G. Jaeger, and Joseph C. Mitchell, who brought much of his collection here along with those made in Virginia by Chrispher Pague, Kurt Buhlman, and David A. Young.
McCoy also helped establish scientists early in their careers by co-authoring papers with them. The list is long, but most notable pupils were Oscar Flores Villela, Gustavo Casas, Lucy Aquino, Frederico Achaval, Daniel Garcia Sanchez, and Alfredo Salvador.
Ellen J. Censky
During the search for a successor to McCoy, two curators were hired. In 1994 Ellen J. Censky became assistant curator after assuming head of section in 1993. She had worked in the collection since 1979 and been trained in all manner of collection maintenance as well as doing research via McCoy. She had previously done field work in many of the United States as well as in Belize, Paraguay, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean, where she conducted research toward her PhD in Anguilla.
John J. Wiens
John J. Wiens joined Censky as a curator after completing his dissertation at Kansas in 1995.
Having two curators had occurred many times in the past, with McCoy's overlap with Richmond for eight years and Netting's overlap with Orton and Richmond for many years. Duties were split between two curators—Censky primarily handled collection duties, and Wiens being able to concentrate on research. Censky left in late 1998 to take a job as a director of a small museum.
Wiens was a prodigious researcher and cranked out over six major publications a year through his tenure here. He was credited with establishing a the molecular phylogenetics laboratory at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and brought in Christopher L. Parkinson to set up the lab. During this same period, the section had Robert E. Espinoza as a Rea Postdoctoral Fellow, making the section very prominent in the museum
Wiens left to become a professor at Stony Brook University in New York at the end of 2002, leaving the section with only a collection manager until November of 2012 when José Padial became assistant curator in the section.
Padial worked at Carnegie Museum of Natural History for just over four years. He took four very successful field trips in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 to Amazonian Peru, exploring in each successive trip new areas of the jungle and documenting the fauna of the area. His final trip to Amazonian Peru in association with Carnegie Museum of Natural History was funded by the Carnegie Discoverers. There is a great probability that at least a dozen new species were discovered on that expedition. Padial moved to New York in December 2016 and remained on at Carnegie Museum of Natural History as a research associate to study the specimens from his final trip and continue his work on a publication of the results.
Section of Herpetology Inquiries
Please contact the collection manager should you wish to visit the collection.
Requests for loans should either be made by hardcopy letter on institutional stationery or by email. Loans are made to permanent staff at universities and museums or to graduate students with their advisor also listed on the paperwork. In all cases, the master’s or doctoral advisors should be aware that they will be responsible for the loan. A brief synopsis of the study on the specimens should be outlined in the request as well as how the specimens will be used. Any destructive sampling requests, such as sampling tissue, removing stomach contents, or small cuts to ascertain sex must be authorized.
Fluid Specimen Loan Care
There are three layers of plastic to prevent fluid leaks and cheesecloth to maintain the moisture inside the inner bag. Sharp projectiles on specimens (claws, teeth, etc.) should be properly wrapped with additional cheesecloth to prevent penetrating the inner plastic bag. Absorbent material is placed between the second and outside layer of plastic. Specimens are shipped by and can be returned using USPS, UPS, or FedEx. Specimens in alcohol are maintained in 70% ethanol/ethyl alcohol that is NOT denatured. Please maintain this fluid when at the borrowing institution and do not store in isopropyl alcohol. Specimens in formalin will be sent with very little fluid and should be stored in 5-10% formalin while at the borrowing institution.
Two copies of the paperwork are sent with loans—one for the researcher and the second to be signed on receipt and inspection of the package. Note the condition of the specimens and verify the contents before sending back the signed copy.
Generally, only half of the total specimens will be sent in any one loan, with the second half sent out after return of the first borrowed portion. In common species, the two loans may be mailed in consecutive weeks with permission to borrow all specimens in our collection. Holotypes are rarely lent.
Section of Herpetology Found in Museum Displays
There are three cases of reptiles and amphibians featured on the Daniel G. & Carole L. Kamin T. Rex Overlook on the second floor of the museum. There are a few amphibians and reptiles scattered in the dioramas in the halls of African and North American Wildlife and Botany Hall. Discovery Basecamp, in the rear of the building, has a cast of an enormous leatherback turtle suspended from the ceiling as well as some miscellaneous specimens on exhibit.