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Reptile & Amphibian History

Original Museum Building (1918)

A large number of amphibians and reptiles had accumulated in the Museum of Zoology by the time the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians was officially recognized in 1917 (H. T. Gaige, 1920; Ruthven, 1920; Rogers, 1956). Actually, the history of the Museum's collections can be traced to June 21, 1837* when the Michigan State Legislature budgeted for a Cabinet of Natural History, renamed the Museum of Natural History in 1881 (Ruthven, 1910).

Among the earliest specimens acquired by the University was a Bufo americanus (UMMZ 20), contributed by Professor Abram Sager in 1837, from the southeast part of the state. As early as 1863, there were 81 amphibian entries representing 212 specimens, and 290 reptile entries representing 336 specimens (Winchell, 1864:17). Many of these early specimens were part of the Trowbridge Collection, which was donated by the Smithsonian Institution in 1859. Much of that collection was obtained by Lieutenant William Petit Trowbridge, a University of Michigan professor, while in the United States Army during his tour of duty along the Pacific Coast, from San Diego to Puget Sound (1853-1856).

A University of Michigan Museum of Zoology field trip to Schoolcraft County, Michigan, July-August, 1915.

Other significant early sources of materials were the Beal-Steere collections, which were made by Professor Joseph Beal Steere in South America and the Orient during his trip around the world in 1870-1875 (Winchell, 1871, 1873) and subsequent expeditions in 1879 and 1887-1888 (F. M. Gaige, 1932; Rogers, 1956). Although most of the early catalogued amphibian and reptile material is no longer available, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, there remain two well preserved Ambystoma tigrinum (UMMZ 150) collected by W. J. Beal in 1857 from Lenawee County, Michigan, and two Nerodia sipedon (UMMZ 38) in equally good condition, collected by R. Frazer on May 2, 1858, from Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, very few of the Division's Trowbridge and Beal-Steere specimens can be located. In addition to the actual catalogues in which amphibians and reptiles are registered, details of the early accessions were published in University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology (1861) and Winchell (1864, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1870, 1871, 1873).

Many science faculty had responsibility for the Museum collections in the early years, including Asa Gray (1838), Abram Sager (1842-1855), Alexander Winchell (1855-1873), Mark W. Harrington (1873-1876), Joseph B. Steere (1876-1894), Jacob E. Reighard (1894-1895), Dean C. Worcester (1895-1898), Herbert E. Sargeant (1898-1903), and Charles C. Adams (1903-1906). Alexander G. Ruthven (1906-1936) was the first professionally trained herpetologist to curate the amphibians and reptiles. He was ably assisted early in his curatorship by Helen Thompson (1912-1918) and Crystal Thompson (1914-1918), who were friends, but not related by birth (Fig. 1). Helen Gaige (née Thompson) was given an official curatorial title in 1919, a position she held until her retirement in 1945. More recent Divisional Curators (Figs. 2-4) were Norman E. Hartweg (1934-1964), Charles F. Walker (1947-1975), and Donald W. Tinkle (1965-1980). Other notable students of amphibian and reptile biology on the University of Michigan faculty, but who did not hold curatorships in the Division, include Reeve M. Bailey, Frank N. Blanchard, William R. Dawson, Carl Gans, Howard K. Gloyd, Nelson G. Hairston, George W. Nace, Laurence C. Stuart, and Frederick H. Test.

Alexander Ruthven

Alexander Grant Ruthven is an extremely important figure in the history of the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians, as he is for the Museum of Zoology and the University of Michigan (Van de Water, 1977). The large numbers of specimens acquired by the Division in the early part of this century were due to his field work and particular interest in the study of geographic variation with statistical methods, which led him to emphasize the acquisition of large local samples. He personally led 18 expeditions from the Museum of Zoology (F. M. Gaige, 1930), which included major field excursions to the Porcupine Mountains, Ontonagon County (1904), and Isle Royale (1904 and 1905), Michigan, Clay County and Palo Alto County, Iowa (1907 and 1909), Vera Cruz, Mexico (1910), northeastern Nevada (1912), the Davis Mountains, Texas (1913 and 1915), the Santa Marta Mountains, Colombia (1913), Richland County, Illinois (1913), the Demerara River, British Guiana (1914), and the Pisgah Forest Reserve, North Carolina (1915). "To him museum collections and data were one of the essential tools for deciphering the course and much of the mechanism of evolution, and a sine qua non for the construction of a systematics that could aspire to an accurate presentation of taxonomical relationships" (Rogers, 1956:1503).

In 1913, the Board of Regents of the University renamed the Museum of Natural History as the Museum of Zoology and appointed Ruthven as its first Director. Division of Reptiles and Amphibians, the official name for the collection of amphibians and reptiles in the Museum, stems from Ruthven (1917:6), although it has not been applied consistently (e.g., Ruthven, 1920; H. T. Gaige, 1920). It was with Ruthven's considerable effort, beginning in 1918, that funds were secured for the present Museums Building (Fig. 5), which opened in 1928 (Ruthven, 1929). Although Ruthven resigned the directorship of the Museum of Zoology and accepted the presidency of the University in 1929, he did not give up his curatorship until 1936. Ruthven was a prolific researcher, with 160 authored or co-authored professional papers bearing his name. He was among the first to publish in the Museum's Occasional Papers (1913) and Miscellaneous Publications (1922), journal series which he initiated. Ruthven et al.'s (1912, 1928) "The Herpetology of Michigan" continues to serve as a model for state field guides, and his published doctoral thesis, "Variations and Genetic Relationships of the Garter-Snakes," remains a classic study of geographic variation (Ruthven, 1908).

All natural history acquisitions were registered in the same number series early in the Museum's history, and those nine bound volumes are now stored in the Museums Library security cage. In 1916, four separate vertebrate catalogues were initiated, each beginning with number 52001. Volume 11 started the amphibian and reptile series, which lasted until 1975 when volume 21 was completed, and when the Division switched to TAXIR, a mainframe computer database management system. The Division now uses FoxPro in a distributed computing environment to manage electronically all aspects of its collection records. During the last five years, collection growth has averaged more than 4400 specimens per annum. According to the most recent annual report (1994-1995), the Division's holdings have grown to more than 209,000 numbered lots, which represent nearly 400,000 specimens.

William H Smith Image: Courtesy of Kalamazoo College Archives

That significant herpetological research has been done at the University of Michigan from a very early date is indicated by the fact that of the two Doctor of Philosophy degrees first awarded by the University, in 1876, one was to William Henry Smith for his thesis entitled 'The zoology of Anoura and Caecilia.' Smith went on to publish his doctoral research (1877), as well as other works dealing with the herpetofauna of Michigan and Ohio (1879, 1882). According to Ruthven et al. (1928:185), Smith's Michigan catalogue (1879) was based in part on the specimens in the University of Michigan Museum. From the time of Alexander Ruthven well over 50 Ph.D. students have received their degrees under the guidance of curators in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians.

From left to right: N.E. Hartweg, D.W. Tinkle, C.F. Walker

Links to other details concerning the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians include: bibliographies for past curators, H. T. Gaige, N. E. Hartweg, A. G. Ruthven, C. Thompson, D. W. Tinkle, and C. F. Walker, a list of students earning PhD degrees whose major professor was a Curator in the Divsion, annual reports, and various policy statements pertaining to the use of specimens and other materials in the Division's care.