The History of Kansas Herpetology

Perhaps more is known of the amphibians and reptiles in the state of Kansas, than from any other similar-sized geographic area in the world. This is due in large part, to the number of active herpetologists and the collections being made at the many universities and colleges throughout the state.

Pre-History: — Native Americans had a remarkably thorough accounting of the amphibians and reptiles they encountered in Kansas as late as 10,000 years ago. There is ample evidence that amphibians and reptiles were utilized as food resources and that herps were actively sought by turning rocks.

Westward Expansion and Exploration (1804-1860): — The first formally reported biological surveys in what would become Kansas were associated with various U.S. Army explorations into the American West; they began after the Louisiana Purchase with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 and lasted through 1863. Kansas was not declared a territory until 1854, and even then its borders stretched west to the continental divide. Because of this, the historical record of some of the earliest students of Kansas herpetology is obscured by our inability to determine exactly where specimens were collected. This is compounded by the fact that with few reference points available, many localities were likely labeled from the point they were shipped east.
Thomas Say was the first person to document an amphibian or reptile in the geographic area that would eventually become Kansas. He described the type specimen of the Western Ratsnake from Isle au Vache (Cow Island), Kansas (an island on the Missouri River). His type locality description stretches from NE Kansas to western Iowa. Interestingly, Cow Island was the site of Cantonment Martin, a military camp established as a supply base for Major Stephen H. Long’s engineering expedition of 1819-20 of which Say served as the naturalist. This expedition set out to survey the Rocky Mountains and the major tributaries of the Missouri River. Unfotunately, by a combination of natural accretion and avulsion followed by unnatural dredging, levy construction, and channelization, Kansas lost Cow Island (and thus its first type locality) to Missouri by an act of Congress in 1949 (Kansas-Missouri Boundary Compact).
The Spring Peeper was first recorded (collected 22 April 1833) in Kansas by the German explorer and naturalist Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied. Wied spent time studying the plains flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples. He traveled within North America from 1832 through 1834. In 1838 he described the Spring Peeper (from "Cantonment Leavenworth"). Though it is currently not known within 40 miles of the type locality or even across the state line into Missouri. It has been questioned whether the specimen may have come from further east as Wied moved up the Missouri River. However, in his account (p. 275) Weid makes clear that the specimen was collected soon after reaching the "dies der Landungsplatz des Cantonment Leavenworth, eines Militärpostens, (=landing place of the Cantonment Leavenworth, a military post,)". Based on Wied's published description, there is little doubt that his specimen was, in fact, an adult male Spring Peeper.
Other notable military personnel and naturalists that led expeditions and crossed Kansas during this period were Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, Major Stephen H. Long, Major Howard Stansbury, Major General William H. Emory, and Brigadier General Randolph B. Marcy. They sent their specimens east to the US National Museum, where they were curated, studied, and documented by individuals such as Spencer F. Baird and Charles Girard. In 1856, Edward Hallowell, a 19th-century naturalist, authored a report on the Kansas herpetofauna, but the precise localities for his specimens cannot be verified. Hallowell may never have visited Kansas and the specimens he wrote about were probably collected by William A. Hammond (an army medical director stationed at Fort Riley). In his report, Hallowell described the Western Narrow-mouthed Toad (Gastrophryne olivacea) to science for the first time.

Early Statehood (1861-1875): — Thus, by the time Kansas became a state in 1861, and essentially marking the end of the period of western expansion and exploration, there had been 17 species of amphibians and reptiles reported. Nearly two decades passed before any other significant works were published on the state's herpetofauna or specimens were added to collections.

State Universities (1876-1950): — This period was set in motion by the formation of state universities (1863 [Kansas State Univeristy (KSU) and Emporia State University (ESU)], 1865 [University of Kansas (KU) and Washburn University (WU)], 1895 [Wichita State University (WSU)], 1902 [Fort Hays State University (FHSU)], and 1903 [Pittsburg State University (PSU)]) and the scientists that were ultimately associated with them. This period marks surge of exploration and scholarly research activity that has really yet to cease; resulting in several faunal lists and targeted fieldwork. In 1877, Annie E. (Mozley) Boddington, then a student of Dr. Francis H. Snow, listed 32 serpents from Kansas that were housed in a collection at the University of Kansas.
In addition, during the 1870s and 1880s, herpetological specimens from Kansas made their way into museums back East. The most notable collectors at that time were students of Louis Agassiz (especially Joel A. Allen and Samuel W. Garman, both at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University) and the paid collectors of Edward D. Cope (which included several members of the Sternberg family, famous for their fossil discoveries in the western Kansas chalk).
In 1881, Francis W. Cragin of Washburn University was the first biologist to compile a list of all amphibians, reptiles, and turtles known from Kansas at that time. His Preliminary catalog of Kansas reptiles and batrachians (=amphibians) recorded a robust 88 species and subspecies from the state; he continued to provide numerous notes on these animals until 1894. In 1900 the famed paleontologist Edward D. Cope reported the Grotto Salamander from Kansas.
In 1904, Edwin B. Branson of the University of Kansas wrote his thesis on the snakes of Kansas, reporting 39 species and subspecies from the state. In 1906 Frank A. Hartman wrote on the dietary habits of Kansas' lizards and amphibians, reporting the Crawfish Frog for the first time.
After Hartman's paper, little was reported on Kansas herpetology until 1916 when Edward H. Taylor, then a graduate student at the University of Kansas, completed his unpublished master's thesis, The Lizards of Kansas, in which he recorded 20 species and subspecies from the state, adding the Coal Skink to the faunal list. Taylor finished his thesis in 1912 and left Kansas to take a position in the Philippines. During his absence, Victor H. Householder, also a graduate student at the University of Kansas, studied the lizards and turtles of the state and in 1917 completed his unpublished thesis, The lizards and turtles of Kansas with notes on their distribution and habitat. Householder reported 13 species of turtles and 19 species of lizards from Kansas. Taylor's thesis was published posthumously in 1993 by the Kansas Herpetological Society.
In the late 1920s, a tremendous burst of interest in Kansas herpetology began and has continued to this day. Hobart M. Smith (then a student of Edward H. Taylor at the University of Kansas), Charles E. Burt (a Topeka resident born in Neodesha), Howard K. Gloyd (a native Kansan born in DeSoto), Claude W. Hibbard (a native Kansan born in Toronto), and Joseph Tihen (a native Kansan) initiated studies that resulted in more than 30 notes and papers published between 1927 and 1950. Most notable of these were Burt's (1928) The Lizards of Kansas and Smith's (1934) The Amphibians of Kansas-the latter a sorely needed study of a group of animals almost completely ignored in the state before that time.

Modern Era (1850-Present): — Smith maintained his interest in Kansas herpetology and produced the Handbook of Amphibians and Reptiles of Kansas, which appeared in 1950 and was revised and re-issued as a second edition in 1956. In this handbook, Smith recorded 97 species from the state.
In the 1950s, the late Robert F. Clarke (Emporia State University) had numerous articles published on the ecology of amphibians, reptiles, and turtles in Osage, Chase, and Lyon counties, as well as on lizards in general. Richard A. Diener wrote three papers on Kansas snakes during 1956 and 1957. Hibbard revisited the state and contributed short reports in 1963 and 1964. By 1950, Henry S. Fitch had begun fieldwork on the newly established Natural History Reservation of the University of Kansas in Douglas County. His excellent work and that of his many colleagues and students produced intensive ecological and natural history studies in northeastern Kansas. Fitch alone produced over 145 papers on the herpetofauna of the newly named Fitch Natural History Reservation. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, Eugene D. Fleharty was active in Kansas herpetology at Fort Hays State University, co-authoring, with his students, a number of papers on the distribution of these animals in the state.
Joseph T. Collins arrived in Kansas in 1968, and wrote Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas (1974), confirming 91 species from the state. His second edition (1982) identified 92 species as occurring in Kansas. He and Suzanne L. Collins wrote the third edition in 1993, in which they recognized 97 kinds of amphibians, reptiles, and turtles as members of the state herpetofauna. They, with Travis W. Taggart and Errol D. Hooper, produced the 4th edition in 2010.
Dwight R. Platt (Bethel College, Newton), along with members of the Conservation Committee of the Kansas Academy of Science and other biologists, initiated (1974) a list of rare or endangered Kansas amphibians, reptiles, and turtles for the purpose of identifying animals in danger of extirpation. Their proposal and subsequent action by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks resulted in an official endangered, threatened, or species in need of conservation (SI NC) list, in 1978. Amphibians, reptiles, and turtles currently on this list are protected by law. In addition, starting in the 1960s, Platt wrote extensively about the herpetofauna of the sand prairies of southcentral Kansas, a topic he has continued to research.
The formation of the Kansas Herpetological Society was a significant development. Established in Lawrence in May of 1974 by Joseph T. Collins, with the help of some colleagues and friends, it rapidly developed into a strong statewide organization with active programs on the study and conservation of the native herpetofauna. Its members have contributed a great deal of distributional data and made significant observations on these animals throughout the state, many of which have been published in the Kansas Herpetological Society Newsletter (1974 to 2001) and its successor, the Journal of Kansas Herpetology (2002 to 2012), and ultimately Collinsorum (2013 to date) now the official periodical of the Society. Of special significance was the creation by Collins in 1989 of an annual KHS herpetofaunal count. Patterned on the well-known Christmas bird counts conducted by ornithologists, this annual spring-summer herpetofaunal tally was the first of its kind in the nation and continues to date. These KHS counts have provided much data on the comparative abundance of Kansas herps. The counts have stimulated a great deal of involvement by the interested public, all while teaching many of them about amphibians, reptiles, and turtles.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, through voluntary contributions to its Chickadee Checkoff program, has supported many studies on some of the state's lesser-known amphibians and reptiles under the leadership of Ken Brunson, always a champion of Kansas natural history (and herps in particular). The first of these was funded in 1981; such studies continue to be supported by KDWP.
Since 1998, strong interest in the distribution and evolution of the herpetofauna of Kansas has re-emerged at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University, where William Stark, Travis W. Taggart, Curtis J. Schmidt, and Eugene D. Fleharty are active in the herpetology collection (including a substantial tissue repository) and are engaged in field surveys throughout the state.
Additionally substantitive research into Kansas herpetology is taking place at Emporia State Univeristy, (Lynnette Siever, Alexis Powell, and Gregory Sievert), Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (Daren Riedle), Univeristy of Kansas (Rafe Brown and Rich Glor), Pittsburg State University, (Andrew George), Sedgwick County Zoo (Nate Nelson), and Wichita State Univeristy (Thomas Luring and Dexter Mardis).

Last Updated: 02/6/2023 2:22:22 PM CST — Travis W. Taggart

Travis W. Taggart © 1999-2024 — w/ Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University