Sunday, 12 August 2012

Report from the Front with the Foul and Loathsome

Linnaeus, founder of the system of scientific naming of living things, sure didn't like reptiles or amphibians (back then, they were colectively just "Amphibia"), as he makes clear in his introduction to the group:

"Amphibia pleraque horrent Corpori frigido, Colore lurido,  Sceleto cartilagineo, Cute foeda, Facie torva, Obtuto meditabundo, Odore tetro, Sono rauco, Loco squalido, Veneno horrendo; non iraque in horum numerum sese jactavit eorum Auctor." *
"These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not exerted his powers to make more of them."
- Carolus Linnaeus (1758)

Things sure have changed in the past 254 years. Like the War of American Independence, the French Revolution, elimination of the bustle, flying machines, voting women, Prohibition, Lucky Lindy made it, Casey at the bat didn't, the Beatles, and a few other things. Yes, even in the early 21st century a lot of people, maybe even the majority, still agree with Carolus (Carl to his buds!). Too many of our neighbors still find herpetofauna "foul and loathsome". ("Herpetofauna"; now there's a word Carl would have liked.) That attitude is a subject I'll cover another time.

Given that my opinion of herpetofauna is the polar opposite, yin-to-his-yang, of Linnaeus, it comes as a wonderful "so there!" to see that he was way off when he wrote, "their Creator has not exerted his powers to make more of them". His original list of both amphibians and reptiles covered a few score of taxa. But with the massive world exploration and exploitation that followed in the next two centuries, the numbers of both groups has risen considerably. For instance--

There are some 8- to 9,000 species of reptiles described (depending on what taxonomists eventually do about a bunch of 'subspecies'). That's closing in on the number of described birds (11,000-ish) and mammals (3,500). As late as the 1990s a student in a herpetology course would still be taught that amphibians were the smallest group of terrestrial vertebrates, numbering about 3,000 to 3,200. Even so, what Linnaeus called Amphibia had gone from a group that he believed contained few species to a pair of groups with over 12,000! Yes, I respect Carl and all he's done for biology, but I do not like his derisive comments about my favourite creatures.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE. Yeah, the past 20 years have seen a blitz of exploration and reexamination of museum specimens, and added to the number of herpetological species at a possibly unprecedented rate. This next comment is aimed (respectfully) at Linnaeus:

Hey, Carl! Amphibians have cleared the--get this--SEVEN THOUSAND species mark! That's right, and you can read all about it here: (

The more carefully we look, the more we learn, and some of the discoveries are almost unbelievable. Like lots of amphibians do NOT go back to the water to reproduce. The earliest amphibian fossils (relax, Carl, I'll explain fossils to you later) had seven or nine fingers instead of four or five. Cave salamanders eat the dung of other troglodytes. The most noxious poisons produced naturally by living creatures comes from among the smallest frogs. We've discovered "sibling species", creatures that differ in mating calls, time of activity... but look so much alike that there is no physical way to distinguish between them. With 7,000 species, I can't get into all the news here, but there is an incredible world of newly discovered aliens living all around us.


* Want to read the whole Latin text for yourself... you know, go to the original source? Then go here:
Caroli Linnaei, Systema Naturae

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