What is Herpetology ?

Herpetology is the study of Reptiles, a branch of zoology as distinct as the more familiar Ornithology (the study of birds), Ichthyology (the study of fishes) or Entomology (the study of insects).

The word is derived from the Greek herpo or Latin herpes, meaning 'creeping', as in creeping animal, but unfortunately a rather well known disease name also has the same root. The Latin word reptile also means creeping animal.

Strictly speaking the Amphibians are not included within Herpetology, they are a completely separate group of vertebrate organisms, and the term Batrachology, from batrachos, the Greek for frog, is available for their study. However, the amphibians are usually grouped with the reptiles within herpetology and most herpetological societies are as open to persons who study amphibians as those who study reptiles.

amphibians the size of small frogs....
to reptiles as large as man-eating crocodiles.
Copyrighted cartoons from Mark's talk "In Search of Curious Beasts"

Also someone who keeps and breed reptiles is not strictly an herpetologist, since that word refers to 'the study' of reptiles, in an academic sense. Someone who keeps fish is an aquaculturist or aquarist, someone who keeps birds is an aviculturist, neither would automatically be called an ichthyologist or ornithologist respectively. Until fairly recently there was no word for someone who maintained reptiles (and amphibians) in captivity, until the Americans coined the term herpetoculturist. This word is finding increasing favour internationally, although herpetologist does continue in use for people who maintain reptiles in captivity.

Whether an herpetologist or an herpetoculturist, the word should be prefaced by 'an' rather than 'a', in both the written or the spoken forms, since these are both words that begin with a silent 'h', like hotel or herbs. Despite this fact, when describing one's occupation to a lay person it is often a good idea to utilise the 'H', lest they think the subject begins with an 'E'.

The omission of the 'h' is even evident in reptile taxonomy* where the Southeast Asian tentacled snake, a rear-fanged mildly venomous piscivorous snake possessing a pair of unusual protruding sensory tentacles, found its name corrected from Herpeton tentaculatum to Erpeton tentaculatum.

Tentacled snake, Erpeton tentaculatum
formerly Herpeton tentaculatum


* Taxonomy is the science of classification, also known as Systematics, by which species, genera and higher groups of organisms are defined and described. Nomenclature is the method by which they are named. The naming of reptiles and amphibians is governed by rules laid down by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Species names are binomials, subspecies are trinomials, based on the Linnean System, named after Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who initiated this system of naming organisms in 1758.

Only the generic name, the first name of the binomial/trinomial, receives a large case initial letter, while the specific and subspecific names begin with small case letters regardless of whether they are named after a person or place. The Western European grass snakes, therefore is known as Natrix natrix helvetica, the western European subspecies, helvetica, of the grass snake species, natrix, in the European watersnake genus Natrix. The binomial or trinomial is written in italics although underlining was acceptable when typewriters were used.

Natrix natrix was described by Linnaeus in 1758 but he described it with a different generic name, Coluber, so when the author's name is added to the species name it is included in brackets to indicate a change from the original name, ie. Natrix natrix (Linnaeus, 1758). The subspecies was described by Frenchman Lacépéde in 1798, again when the species was in the genus Coluber, so the subspecies is correctly written Natrix natrix helvetica (Lacépéde, 1798)

The grass snake belongs is the family Natricidae (large case initial letter but no italics). A member of the Natricidae is a natricid (small case initial letter) formerly a natricine when the Natricidae was a subfamily of the much larger Colubridae.


English grass snake, Natrix natrix helvetica
formerly Coluber natrix helvetica

Although herpetology does generally include the amphibians, I am primarily a reptile specialist so most of this site will be devoted to reptiles. That is not to say I am not interested in amphibians, quite the contrary, I document and collection amphibians when conducting herpetological surveys, I photograph amphibians, I am extremely concerned about "Global Amphibian Decline" and I am particularly fascinated by the little known burrowing, and aquatic, amphibians knowns as caecilians, that replace the newts and salamander in the Old and New World Tropics. So amphibians will not be completely absent from this website, and to prove that here is a photograph of the curious São Tome caecilian, Schistometopum thomense, from the island of that name in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa.

São Tome caecilian, Schistometopum thomense
a curious burrowing amphibian.


It is planned to expand this section considerably as time permits, to cover different aspects of herpetology, including species lists, fieldwork techniques etc.