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Click here to read Part I.
|Infographic showing the "tenure" of 807 snake genera used by more than one taxonomist.|
An additional 387 genera used only once are not shown, for a total of 1,194. Of these, about 500 are currently in use.
The three longest lines at the top are the original three genera coined by Linnaeus in 1758 and still in use today.
Data span 1758-2010, from The Reptile Database.
Click for full version.
|The Racer (Coluber constrictor) is one of only four snakes|
that have gone by the same scientific name since 1758.
Today Coluber contains only 14 species, 11 of which
were recently reallocated to it from Masticophis.
In 1758 Linnaeus placed 61 species into Coluber,
of which only C. constrictor remains.
|Racer plate from Catesby's Natural History.|
Catesby also described cornsnakes but not ratsnakes,
suggesting that perhaps he too confused ratsnakes and racers.
|Top: Boa constrictor|
Bottom: Boa constrictor plate from Linnaeus & Sundius's
1748 Surinamensa Grilliana, drawn by P. A. Petersson
and engraved by C. Bergquist
|Image of an African Python (Python sebae) from Charles Challié Long's|
1876 book Central Africa: Naked Truths of Naked People
The caption reads "Capture of a Boa-Constrictor"
Global distribution of 35 species of the genus Crotalus
Data from IUCN; click for a larger version
|Top: Neotropical Rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus)|
Bottom: The earliest illustration of a rattlesnake
in a book, from Hernández 1628
|Crotalus horridus is the type species of the genus Crotalus,|
which today contains 39 species.
|Catesby's Timber Rattlesnake (which he called Vipera|
caudisona, but which Linnaeus and we call Crotalus horridus).
Kalm considered this "an incomparable illustration".
|Timber Rattlesnake from Bradley (1721)|
Linnaeus described 83 other snake species between his 10th and 12th editions that are still considered valid today, plus 31 that are not (including Crotalus dryinas and Boa orophias). These include many familiar, widespread, and notable species, including 2 scolecophidians, Anilius scytale, and an Asian pipesnake from Sri Lanka (all of which he placed in the genus Anguis, which we today use for legless lizards), several huge constrictors including the Indian Python, Boa Constrictor, and Green Anaconda (but also three smaller tree boas and two sand boas, the latter also in Angius), 13 vipers including the fer-de-lance, copperhead, European adder, bushmaster, and pygmy rattlesnake, a pair of homalopsids, 46 colubrids (including many familiar European and American species but also an African egg-eater and an Asian flying snake), 5 lamprophiids, and 9 elapids (including 3 cobras, 2 coralsnakes, and 2 sea snakes). He also made a few brief comments about snake anatomy and biology as footnotes or in his introductory material, including his method for counting ventral and subcaudal scales (first used in Amphibia Gyllenborgiana and still in use today) as well as the correct observations that "Serpents of our country hibernate and in the early spring shed their skin, that is to say, their old age" and "Serpentes often swallow down prey twice as thick as their neck, on account of their expandable, unarticulated jaws". In other works, he presents a great deal of information on snakebite and, the consummate botanist, its treatment using various medicinal plants. Although Linnaeus bore no special love for snakes, he treated them as he did other biodiversity, and I encourage all modern biologists to do the same—to view snakes as wildlife rather than pests, as a beautiful and diverse part of our natural heritage, to see them as what they are rather than what we imagine them to be.
It is tempting to imagine Linnaeus as a brilliant solitary taxonomist, aided and sent specimens by his correspondents, colleagues, and students but intellectually working alone. But, as today, Linnaeus relied heavily on his network both to obtain specimens and to describe them with reference to those who had gone before. Of the 74 species in the 10th edition, only four were brand new original descriptions (these were Vipera aspis from southern Europe, Epicrates cenchria from South America, Erythrolamprus triscalis from Curaçao, and Duberria lutrix from Africa), and the 12th contained scarcely more, mostly southeastern North American species sent to Linnaeus by Alexander Garden. Almost ten times that many new snakes were described last year alone.
|Coronella austriaca from Laurenti 1768|
1 In the 10th edition Linnaeus confused specimens of racers with those of the black form of the Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), but by the 12th edition these had been separated and the phrase "triangular head" removed from the description of the racer.↩
3 Like Maria Sibylla Merian before him, Catesby was among the first naturalists to draw his plants and animals interacting in their natural habitats, a style of representation that would later be used by Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. He was also the first to abandon the Native American names for his subjects, instead establishing scientific binomials based on relationships a la Linnaeus. Had his work been published three decades later, he might have been immortalized as the father of North American herp taxonomy, and many of the scientific names that we use today could have been very different. Catesby's book, richly illustrated, was much more popular than Linnaeus's.↩
4 The specimen named Coluber leberis was likely a Storeria, the only genus found in the area traversed by Kalm (Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and southern Ontario) with matching scale counts. Although the scale counts and pattern description match S. occipitomaculata better and this species is more common than S. dekayi in northeastern North America, the specimen could have been either, and since we cannot examine it, the name is not used. Coluber ovivorus is even more enigmatic, because the description does not match any northeastern snake well.↩
5 This is because, by the time it was all sorted out, the name C. durissus had ended up being in more widespread use, so the "proper" name dryinas was suppressed by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.↩
6 There is a reasonable chance that the specimen that Linnaeus first named C. horridus was actually from South America, and thus was really C. durissus as well, but since we cannot prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, in 1926 the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature decided to continue to use it for the timber rattlesnake.↩
7 Little is known about Laurenti. No picture of him exists, and his 1768 thesis, Specimen medicum, was his only publication. In it, he elevated Linnaeus's order Reptilia to a class, distinguishing it from class Amphibia, into which Linnaeus lumped both amphibians and reptiles. Laurenti also tripled the number of reptile genera, coining some of today's most familiar genus names, including Vipera, Natrix, Laticauda, Dipsas, and Naja.↩
Thanks to Todd Pierson, Patrick Jean, and JD Willson for the use of their photos, and to my mom for getting me William Blunt's Linnaeus for Christmas this year, which inspired this article.
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