Curator's blog

29 December 2023: It is that time of year where the news programs are reviewing the celebrities that died in 2023. Got me to thinking of a few people, now gone, that I miss a lot for their humor, good sense, and support. The world is definitely a poorer world without them and it is sad that younger people will never be able to interact with them: Alice "Bunty" Grandison, Carl Gans, Robert "Bob" Inger, and Eric Pianka. Grandison figuratively held my hand while I worked through the 1985 version of ASW. She had a grasp of world biopolitics that was unequaled at the time. Gans was just a great friend and I'll never lose that image in my head of him walking around in his sarong in my NYC apartment, reciting poetry by Goethe in the original German, or feeding by hand his happy dog on the next chair at his dinner table in Ann Arbor. Inger was crusty but kind, extremely helpful, and I never knew him to pick on guppies, something I clearly was back then. He left a trail of adoring students, including me, I suppose, even though I was never one of his. Pianka, was, well, Eric and had one of the finest minds I've ever dealt with. I remember talking with him in Adelaide, South Australia, at the World Congress, and him writing a few differential equations on a restaurant table cloth to make a point. I could just barely keep up and was thanking my lucky stars it wasn't matrix calculus, which it easily could have been. The thing that unites these people wasn't that they were merely "smart", an over-used descriptor in academia; what united them is that they were good at their jobs, kind when it mattered, made a difference, and could communicate well with others. Lessons for us all. 

23 October 2023: Over the last 30 days there have been 18,300 visits to ASW, for a total of 79,184 page-views and 22,300 searches. These numbers are about what I expect for any one month. But, one important thing is that 4740 of these visits were from Brazil (population of 214M) compared with 2825 from the USA (population of 332M). This reflects a sea change, I think, in where amphibian systematics is taking place. When I started in this business in the 1970s, there was not a lot of activity in the global South or Asia. That has changed enormously although old habits die hard, meaning I still have to listen to America-first complaints from people who do not want to understand that herpetological systematics and the people who drive taxonomic change are now truly international and these people are increasingly NOT looking to the traditional centers of herpetological research for direction. 

6 October 2023: I've been impressed in recent years that people coming up in this business seem unaware of the enormity of change during the last 50 years in the practice and underlying philosophy of systematics, largely extending from publication of the English version of Willi Hennig's (1966) volume "Phylogenetic Systematics". This was followed by extremely persuasive (at least to me) position papers by, among others, Gareth Nelson, Steve Farris, David Hull, Donn Rosen, Ed Wiley, Norman Platnick, and Arnold Kluge. But, cladistics in the sense of Hennnig was not an isolated movement; there was also an attempt in the same period to make systematics scientifically repeatable through the quantification of *similarity* (see Sneath and Sokal, 1973, Numerical Taxonomy). And, if you look around today you see elements of both "schools" in current work, mostly a good thing I think, although overall phylogenetic systematics has clearly taken the stage. But, one paper that I think illustrates the transition in ways of thinking is John Lynch's (1973) "The transition from archaic to advanced frogs". Anyone interested in the history of 'how-we-got-here' needs to have read this underappreciated paper that is a great exemplar of that transitional period where smart people were dealing with the big scientific and sociological changes that were happening. See the citation here: Lynch, 1973, in Vial (ed.), Evol. Biol. Anurans. It was the hand-drawn phylogeny in this paper that was what first got me interested in amphibian phylogenetics. 

20 August 2023: Finally have the new geographic searching capability up and running, which should be useful to those who need to address the regulatory status of endangered species. The old GUIDED SEARCH had some serious problems and was taken down some months ago. Because I received exactly zero complaints about this removal, it is clear that it wasn't really used very much, if at all. If there are specific queries you think that the database should be able to handle, but currently does not, let me know ([email protected]). 

7 October 2022: A succinct and accurate summary of the problems of mtDNA-only delimited species: Dufresnes and Jablonski, 2022, Science, 377: 1272. Unfortunately, what DRF sees are that mtDNA-only systematic studies have in many cases merely provided mtDNA matrilines masquerading as lineage-species, particularly in tropical Asia. 

29 August 2022: I'm not going to hammer on particular authors here since first authors these days are generally the least responsible for the content of their published papers. But, I am going to bring up the issues of mtDNA and species. Increasingly (thankfully not universally) I see for purposes of delimiting species an mtDNA-only dataset paired with some genetic distance measure. Wow. For starters, with minor exceptions mtDNA is maternally inherited and therefore cannot show population-level intergradation. A cline in morphology will look like inclusive populations if more than one matriline is involved. Even more scary is the fact that hybridization with subsequent introgression can completely capture species that do not share historical identity with the invasive mtDNA matriline. Off hand, I can't think of any amphibian example, but in fence lizards of the genus Sceloporus in southern Mexico mtDNA phylogenetic signal can be completely misleading. In this example the mitochondria of Sceloporus scitulus is in most populations of S. adleri, all S. stejnegeri, and some populations of S. formosus (Eric N. Smith, 1994, Species boundaries and evolutionary patterns of speciation among the malachite lizards (formosus group) of the genus Sceloporus (Squamata: Phrynosomatidae). PhD Dissertation, Univ. Texas Arlington). These species are unquestionably not conspecific, but if an mtDNA-only study were to be carried out it sure would not be reporting anything about the history of the integrating populations of organisms. Moreover, genetic distance is not causal; it is a rule-of-thumb estimator. Just because two samples have a 3% divergence in some mtDNA gene does not mean that extensive intergradation isn't going on. Yeah, I know getting mtDNA is comparatively cheap and easy, and it is quick and easy to employ estimators, add a title to the CV and move on, but I would be a lot happier if people would be using more diverse lines of evidence and get into the zones of contact to see what is actually going on. 

20 May 2022: Maps. I routinely turn to the IUCN Red List assessments ( to read the comments provided by their teams of experts (who really are, for the most part). While the primary focus is summarizing conservation needs, the fact is that putting a team of experts in a room to discuss ranges and such is extremely helpful to me and to other systematists. These experts know the literature, including obscure works that I might have missed. And, they generally know about recently-collected specimens, the geography of range, and have spent a lot of time on the relevant ground. Even better, they give a date for the assessment, which tells me pretty quickly what likely has changed in the literature since that date.

I generally do not turn to automatic specimen-mapping sites (e.g., Berkeley Mapper, Map of Life) for the simple reason that the maps that I need to see are generally ported from the IUCN site to their maps, with collection-specimen localities applied on top of that. I am not saying that is not useful, but, it is useful only in the sense of giving experts with serious background knowledge the heads-up that there are specimens they need to look at.

For instance, an anomaly shows how computer-generated trees can mislead. Look at the maps of Lithobates (or Rana) pipiens on the: (1)  IUCN assessment map, (2) the Berkeley Mapper map, and (3) the Map of Life map

Pretty clearly, for at least this example, the Berkeley Mapper implies a wider distribution that currently understood, given that it lacks and overlay polygon map to imply which records merely reflect old identifications. The result is that it gives a poor summary of the distribution of this species for those without background knowledge of the species. Currently (2022) there is not a single correctly-identified specimen of Lithobates pipiens known from anywhere in Mexico to Panama so all of the dots in that region represent misidentifications (mostly old identifications) of specimens of frogs in collections, presumably from GBIF and/or Vertnet, which reflect the identifications that were included in their databases. That is not their fault. All that means is that many, maybe even most scientific collections have not updated their identifications (nor do they have the resources to do so) of these frogs since the early 1970s, not an uncommon situation. That factoid represents the kind of background knowledge that needs to be brought to any use of these kinds of maps. 

But, all is not lost. Map of Life (and normally, Berkeley Mapper) generally includes a cautioning-device overlay of IUCN-drawn polygon maps, on which GBIF/VertNet data can be placed as dots. This is extremely useful for experts. For example, looking at Hyla arborea ( we can quickly see (aside from the effects of recent taxonomic changes) that records from western Saudi Arabia are deeply suspect and, with a little more key-punching to get us into the GBIF database, we can see that these specimens were originally identified (and still stored as) Hyla arborea savignyi, now referred to as Hyla savignyi, a species distinct from Hyla arborea. What this tells me generally about the Map of Life is that it was designed by a team (led by Walter Jetz) who understood the limitations of museum identifications and the value of expertise.

These observations take me back to one of my don't-get-me-started topics: Informatics will never replace expertise. Misidentifications are rife in any major collection (all underfunded, even in wealthy institutions like the MCZ and AMNH) and it takes real expertise to wade into them. This is why IUCN, by bringing real experts together, has provided a pretty wonderful resource not just for prioritizing conservation efforts but for systematists as well. Without the expertly-drawn maps of IUCN the dot maps of Berkeley Mapper and Map of Life would be substantially misinformative. In tandem with the IUCN maps they promote further research. 

8 April 2022: I am seeing too many species descriptions and estimations of relationships being based solely on 16s rDNA (or some fragment thereof). My queasiness extended primarily from the maternal inheritance of mtDNA and knowing that, at least in some lizards, populations of one well-marked species can carry the mitochondria of another via hybridization and subsequent introgression. So, I was pleased to see the discussion by Chan, Hertwig, Neokleous, Flury, and Brown, 2022, BMC Ecol. Evol., 22 (37): 1–9, on the erratic or poor results of 16s rDNA-only studies of phylogenetic estimation and species delimitation. Let's hope it gets read where it might make a difference. 

29 December 2021: The loss of Tom Lovejoy and Ed Wilson is a big deal. I didn't know either well, but had their acquaintance. Giants without the narcissism I normally associate with National Academy members; both were about getting things done and helping those who shared the view that the planet was worth saving. I don't like to think that anyone is irreplaceable, but I'm thinking that both of these guys were. The world is now a poorer place. 

1 December 2021: Musing today on unintended consequences. Sometime in the late 1990s, academia got interested in impact factors as part of evaluating researchers' productivity and influence. Even at that point it was clear that there were problems with this approach inasmuch as someone who publishes a bullfrog paper in the USA is inherently likely to be more heavily cited that anyone who publishes a paper on the systematics of the Hyperolius viridiflavus complex in central Africa. Although this had to be true (if not precisely this example, then something similar) I was hearing from people that impact factors were good because at least the researchers understood what the optimality criterion was for advancement and the factor could be gamed. And, gamed it certainly has been. When I started workin in this business in the 1970s 1 and 2-author papers were the norm, but nowadays I routinely see simple range extensions based on single specimens with as many as 7 authors and revisions normally running around 5 to 15 authors. What we are seeing, of course, is the effect of two related drivers: (1) focus on expanding numbers of authored titles irrespective of effort, and (2) the selling of tissues, which I think is only arguably bad since real effort goes into collecting them. However, I routinely see tissues changing hands that were not collected by the "seller", and, worse, the notion that with authorship comes responsibility has eroded to irrelevancy. I routinely hear from authors complaining about nomenclatural errors in papers where their name is on the author line. But, they don't see any personal responsibility for those errors; instead they point at one or more of the other authors. So, basically, the whole system is increasingly not focused on solving problems so much as maximizing titles/impact factors. Do I have an easy fix? No. It just seems to be part of the sociological and funding changes I've watched in most western societies over the last 50 years. Does this mean all highly productive people play these games? No. 

9 October 2021: Brazil is easily the heaviest user of ASW with roughly 3x the per capita usage of the USA. That tells me that Brazil is the systematic herpetological juggernaut that US herpetologists believe the USA is. So, to see the Brazilian government decrease science funding by 90% is beyond tragic.  

9 October 2021: I suppose the advantage of working on something for nearly 40 years is that small daily efforts payoff in the long run. Currently ASW contains citations to 16860 individual publications. That means that I've added only a little more than one citation/day for the time I've put in. As I've mentioned to friends, keeping ASW up to date does not require a great deal of time, but it does require never allowing oneself to get too far behind the wave of progress. 

14 May 2021: As originally envisioned by ASC, Amphibian Species of the World was strictly to be a taxonomy for purposes of enforcement by CITES. When I gathered up the pieces in the 1990s, and moved it into an electronic database with the intention of great expansion, my view was that that taxonomy should reflect the state of amphibian systematics. So with some exceptions I have moved forward with whatever I judge to be improvements in our understanding of monophyly and the recognition of lineages. But, I've also expanded literature citations in the comments section to include citations to advertisement calls, larval morphology, and other ancillary work that would be of direct application to or suggestive of patterns to be investigated by systematists. Inclusion of these kinds of literature have definitely been hit-or-miss. So, if you are aware of literature that I have missed and you think it should be included, please send me a pdf and if it fits the criteria for inclusion, I will do my best to get it cited. frost AT will get to me. 

3 May 2021: The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature has for the last 20 years fallen farther and farther behind the times. Nomenclatural decisions that should have been dealt with by automatic provisions still require arcane and increasingly uninformed (on the Commission side) discussions that can take years to resolve if they do not lose the applications (see comment under Dicroglossidae!). The problem, of course, is that nowadays old literature, the tinder of nomenclatural fires, is readily available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the number of new taxonomic publications has expanded enormously in the last generation. The result is that the Commission has lost the luxury of time for leisurely consideration. The field of systematics cannot wait for years for decisions, as has become the norm. And when those decisions do arrive they do not give the impression of concern for the health of systematics. Moreover, the move of the Secretariat from London to Singapore was apparently fairly chaotic, so what minimal functionality that existed has eroded to the point of absurdity. So, I have given up on the ICZN as an organization that is willing to address its own pipeline problems; it apparently still sees 1978 as the future and it is not about to change. ASW will continue to follow the published Code as well as I can. Someone else  can take the ICZN seriously, however. (I suppose the final nail was getting a series of messages from a Commissioner asking me to make a change in ASW so as not to "promote usage" while the ICZN continued to do nothing to resolve a particular nomenclatural issue.) Unfortunately, I am not enthusiastic of the efforts by the Linz Group seemingly to formulate a new Code due to its embrace of a rococo vocabulary and wishing to extend to levels above the family-group. What this does mean is that I will continue to track serious systematic results and comment where necessary on nomenclatural problems, but will not feel obligated to look to the ICZN for direction.  

28 April 2021: Been a while since I spent any time on the blog. But, I have google analytics for the past year. It seems that there were 1.5 M page views, 387K searches, and 214K visits. That seems to be up about 50% from what I was used to hearing. It was pleasantly surprise to see that Brazil is the leader in usage with 45k visits in that period, followed by the USA with 24.9k visit. What makes that number for Brazil especially remarkable is that the population of Brazil is only about 64% of the USA. Brazil rocks herpetologically for sure.  

28 April 2021: I see an increase in subspecies talk these days along with the associated unsound reasoning. It is disappointing to see colleagues who I thought understood the issues only to see that they do not, or worse are just trying to say things popular with people who *really* do not understand the issues. If you want to do phylogenetic analysis (historical biology) you cannot have biological species. If you want to do phylogenetics you must employ lineage species. Trying to mix the two causes serious logical problems. A particularly good illustration of the problem was written by Don Rosen on pp. 275–278 in his review of the fishes of upland Guatemala ( 

6 November 2020: From time to time I get reminded that in this business (herpetology), which is currently dominated by those who game impact factors, extoll their own virtues, real and imagined, on Twitter and Facebook, and who optimize on minimal publishable units, that there really are geniuses among us. Most are unsung. I was reminded today by a friend of one of these this morning. One genius that immediately comes to mind is Ron Altig. I don't think I've met five professional biologists who in aggregate have his content of biological/natural history knowledge. The irony is that he thinks that everyone else is just as informed as him. They are not. As an example, in 1986 (I think) I was at a small conference on frog conservation at the Archbold Research Station in South Florida. Someone was speaking about some aspect of frog biology and mentioned that the biosynthetic pathways for pigments in butterfly wings were identical to the biosynthetic pathways for pigments in frogs. Ron turned to me and whispered (in typical Altig style) "well, shit, everyone knows that!". I responded, "Ron, I didn't know that." And he was truly shocked. That is Ron Altig. The best natural historian I've ever known. And too generous to see it himself. 

19 September 2020: I noticed that the number of species of amphibians today is 8222. As I recall it was 4014 in 1985. And, there are hundreds, if not thousands more waiting to be named. That means that on average ca. 93.5 species were named each year since 1985. And, there is no indication that it will stop anytime soon. 

13 August 2020: Ha! Maybe not my most articulate contributions but the first is a brief explanation of why I spent a lot of time on this catalogue ( and the second is more about me ( And, if you are interested in collections and systematics, something the AMNH did several years ago: .

9 July 2020: Since Covid-19 has me isolated and bored I've had some time to get to things that normally I wouldn't have time for. One of these is why AmphibiaWeb and ASW differ in species counts. The fact is that they share 98.9% of their taxonomic names (the union of the two sets) so they are close to identical. But, there are differences. I find two duplicate records in AW, 1 name based on a hybrid and therefore invalid, 3 kleptons (which are arguable whether they warrant binomials), 11 names with AW records that are unassigned or not confidently assigned to living populations, 68 names that have been placed in synonymy (like Batrachoseps aridus) over the last few years, and 1 that was missed. ASW  lags on one front because I do not enter literature until the final (not Early View) citations are available. Regardless, AWeb is trying to accomplish a lot of things that ASW does not and it is hard for me to imagine how they keep up with this rapidly moving field. 

2 November 2019: I'm seeing a lot of mtDNA-only species-delimitation studies these days. This is dismaying, but I suppose is par for the course as increasingly workers are seemingly uninterested in familiarizing themselves with older literature. The cases where the "wrong" mitochondria appear in species is getting to be large, which should worry at least someone other than me. It would seem before naming something new on the basis of genetic data, it would be prudent to have at least some nuDNA to work with. 

1 November 2019: We have been having some problems with some users being unable to access the database, most notably in China for a few weeks in August and currently in parts of Sao Paulo, Brazil. If you have such a problem, please contact [email protected] and let them know so they can address the problem. 

1 April 2019: Some surprised to see the increasing rate that recent PhDs are posting their unpublished dissertations online. This is a really bad idea. There are lots of people who are willing to work hard, but a substantially smaller number who have ideas. And those with ideas who are incautious enough to spread them around in unpublished form shouldn't be surprised when people without ideas take them and use them. I've seen too many examples of this in the last 15 years. A related and increasingly common problem is that some workers spend a great deal of time delimiting species but not naming them, only to find less hard-working people naming these out from under them. I even had one well-known herpetologist brag to me about how he worked on someone's students to find out where his unnamed species was so he could go there, collect specimens, and name it himself. Which he did, not even offering the original discoverer coauthorship. In another instance, I sat at a table with two salamander systematists at professional meetings in Kansas City, the younger one running off at the mouth about his unpublished discoveries and intentions even as I told him straight out to keep quiet. He found out within a year that his ideas were supremely publishable . . . by the older guy at the table. So, if you want to survive in this business, be smart. 

12 February 2019: Ran into this online, it projects the climate for a city in the USA to 2080 and find an existing city that more-or-less has that climate right now. Sobering.

5 December 2018: Taking the time from other, more fun efforts, does have its salutary effects. I read a lot of amphibian papers, some really good, some not so much. Today I added Siren reticulata which was nice to see. But, having said that it is simply amazing to me how work on species boundaries in the USA has ground to a halt. Not to pick on this paper, which had a clear objective, but it would seem easy enough to sample every drainage on the Gulf Coast for aquatic salamanders, Necturus, Amphiuma, and Siren, and see what patterns emerge. And then name the units. But, again, the 5% award rate on submissions by NSF-DEB is probably the answer. Good we aren't facing major climate change. Oh. We are? Gosh. 

30 November 2018: I've been looking at the #deathbytaxonomy string in twitter. Wow. Apparently basic taxonomic practice is no longer taught much at all at the university level. Very confused and confusing. But, since I am here, I completely sympathize with non-taxonomists having trouble with standard taxonomic practice, particularly because there is almost no place to learn it. But, rather than unfocused complaints, it would be nice to see a solution, like NSF supporting major databases of microbial, zoological, and plant names. That would minimize confusion by non-taxonomists. Come to think of it, it would be nice if NSF would support life history studies, since we know next to zero about the ecological requirements of most amphibians, even in the USA. Ah, but it is not to be. Firstly NSF-DEB has less than a 5% funding rate on proposals received. And, Universities and state governments understand that neurophysiologists are more successful in bringing in a lot more overhead money on grants than ecologists or systematists so they are optimizing on the money. So much for meeting societal needs regarding climate change.