Curator's blog

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. That genius 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, AW 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. Similarly, I'm seeing an upsurge in the use of the subspecies category with no reference to the substantial theoretical literature that exists on this topic. If you want biological species, fine, but don't claim to be doing historical biology. If you want to do historical biology, you are going to have to give up on the biological species concept. You don't get both unless you redefine "subspecies" to be something more akin to a-historical descriptive varieties or pattern classes. 

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 systematists, the younger one running off at the mouth about his unpublished discoveries even as I told him 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 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.