Bayworld

African Herpetology

Herpetological studies at the museum date back to the early part of the last century, with the appointment of Frederick William FitzSimons as Director (1906–1936), and the formation in 1919 of the first Snake Park in Africa (Pringle 1941). The snake park, which was also the world's second, has been situated within the museum complex ever since. Frederick W. FitzSimons, born in Londonderry, Ireland, was only 35 when he was appointed Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum, a post he held until his retirement 31 years later. Although he organised amongst other things the collections and displays as well as public functions, his main interest was in snakes. The new Snake Park became a major tourist attraction. He rapidly established himself as an authority on local snakes with the publication of several books, including The Snakes of South Africa: their Venom and the Treatment of Snake Bite (FitzSimons 1910, 1912), of which the second, expanded edition was one of the first popular books on snakes published anywhere in English. Two subsequent books, Pythons and their Ways (FitzSimons 1930), and Snakes (FitzSimons 1932), the second also published in German, confirmed his local and international herpetological status. However, although he was a great promoter of snakes, F.W. FitzSimons did no significant herpetological taxonomic research. This was left to his eldest son, Vivian Frederick Maynard FitzSimons, who was appointed as Curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at the Transvaal Museum (now the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History), Pretoria in 1921. The younger FitzSimons published numerous descriptions of new reptiles and amphibians and became the foremost southern African herpetologist due to his monographic reviews of the subcontinent’s lizards (FitzSimons 1943) and snakes (FitzSimons 1962).

During the period 1910–1940, between the popularising of snakes by F.W. FitzSimons in Port Elizabeth and the subsequent education and appointment of his eldest son Vivian to a post in the Transvaal Museum, the most prolific and astute herpetologist in South Africa was Dr. John Hewitt in Grahamstown. Hewitt had earlier also worked for several years in the Transvaal Museum, but in 1910 was appointed Director of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, retiring eventually only in 1958 (Adler 1989). Hewitt had an exceptional ‘taxonomist's eye’, and described numerous cryptic species, often on the basis of very few specimens. He at present remains the fourth most prolific describer of valid southern African reptiles, particularly of lizards of which he described 43 taxa, adding only a single snake species (Bitis albanica). He also erected a number of new reptile genera, of which two (Narudasia and Scelotes) are still valid. More importantly, he was responsible for naming the greatest number (33 in total, of which 24 are still regarded as valid) of southern African amphibians, as well as the amphibian genera Anhydrophryne, Arthroleptella, Microbatrachus (= Microbatrachella), Microphryne (Madagascan) and Natalobatrachus. In later life, his administrative duties as Director curtailed his herpetological career, and his popular summary of the Eastern Cape vertebrate fauna (Hewitt 1937) was one of his last contributions to southern African herpetology. During his lengthy career, Hewitt wrote 45 herpetological papers describing 153 taxa, including four varieties (roughly equivalent to races), 67 subspecies, 69 species and 13 genera. Of these, one genus and 10 other taxa were Madagascan. With changing species concepts and taxonomic refinements, the use of varietal and subspecific categories is in decline. Currently 62 (47.7%) of Hewitt’s 130 non-generic herpetological taxa are still considered valid. His massive contributions to herpetological systematics, were only recently recognised with the descriptions of Heleophryne hewitti Boycott, 1988 and Phyllodactylus hewitti (= Goggia hewitti, Branch et al., 1995), although earlier FitzSimons (1947) had named a small frog (Arthroleptella hewitti = Anhydrophryne hewitti) in his honour. As was usual for this period, descriptions of new taxa were often based on few specimens, with little character analysis. 

The size of the PEM herpetology collection increased in 1993 following the incorporation of the herpetological collections of the Kaffarian Museum (=Amatola Museum, King Willliams Town: 600 specimens), Cape Nature Conservation (=CapeNature, Jonkershoek: 2700 specimens) and the Albany Museum (Grahamstown: 6268+ specimens) into the PEM collection. The most significant of these was the herpetology collection of the Albany Museum, which included the second largest group of herpetological types (over 120) in South Africa, as well as the largest collection (over 750 specimens) of land tortoises from the subcontinent. Sadly 50 years prior to the transfer, a disastrous fire on 6 September 1941 severely damaged the Albany Museum. Fortunately the library and most of the research collections were saved, but the museum specimen catalogues and an unknown amount of preserved material were destroyed (Anon 1941; Hewitt 1941; Hewitt 1942).

Active research in herpetology at the PEM was revitalised by the appointment of a fulltime herpetologist, William Roy (Bill) Branch in 1979, whilst curation of the collection was delegated to a Collections Manager, Gill Watson in 1997. An assistant herpetologist, Werner Conradie was appointed in late 2007, whilst Bill Branch formally retired in 2011, retaining the honorary post of Curator Emeritus Herpetology. Werner Conradie has taken over the duties of Curator of Herpetology since. The PEM has an active herpetological research policy, and is one of only four museums in Africa undertaking such research. Since the election of a democratic government in South Africa (1994), field research has expanded into sub-Saharan Africa, and as a consequence the collection is actively growing, with a growth of approximately 4–5% per year in the period 2000–2016. The PEM herpetology collection is now the third largest collection (~35 200 specimens: 22 700 reptiles, 12 100 amphibians and 715 lots of tadpoles) on the African continent, after those of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History (Pretoria, South Africa: ~86 0000 specimens) and the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe (Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: ~52 000 specimens), respectively. The PEM collection comprises of mostly African specimens with 30 African countries represented..

Curator Honorary Curator Emeritus
Werner Conradie Prof Bill Branch
werner@bayworld.co.za