TL;DR Science: Herpetology

By Tasman Rosenfeld
August 19, 2020 · 4 minute read


Alright, let’s get one thing straight; Herpetology is NOT what you’re thinking. Herpetologists do not study herpes simplex viruses or any other sexually transmitted diseases (at least not in humans, but more on this later). Herpetology is the sub-field of zoology concerning the biology of reptiles and amphibians—be it their evolution, ecology, behavior, conservation, etc. Herpetologists are obsessed with the slimy and scaly. 

Before we dive into what herpetologists do, perhaps an introduction to their study subject is in order. Reptiles are a group of animals, including tuataras, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and birds (confused on this last one? We’ll do an article on that). Amphibians, more accurately called lissamphibians, include frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and the mysterious caecilians. Putting non-bird reptiles and amphibians together, we have the “herptiles” or just “herps.” Hopefully, “herpetology” makes a little more sense. As an aside, it should be noted here that even though birds are indeed reptiles, the term “herptile” was coined centuries before we knew that and as such they are generally excluded from this already scientifically inaccurate grouping. Plus, ornithothology, or the study of birds, is already a big field in and of itself.

There are around 17,000 living species of herps spread around every continent except Antarctica. Herps are essential players at the lower trophic levels of ecosystems, usually eating producers or lower-tier consumers and serving as prey for larger carnivores due to their generally small size. They also represent an astonishing diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors ranging from the long-tailed, drab California slender salamanders to the translucent emerald glass frog to the electric-yellow and wickedly venomous Okinawan habu viper to the man-eating Nile crocodile. The goal of herpetology is to learn as much about these fascinating creatures as we can. One might study the bite force of alligators, how tadpoles breathe air, or even the composition of a snake’s venom and its potential to save lives. A particularly big chunk of herpetological work focuses on evolutionary relationships within and between major groups, pulling evidence from anatomy and paleontology, and increasingly in recent decades, molecular biology.

California Slender Salamander

Now, amid a climate crisis and modern extinction event, more and more herpetologists are concerned with the conservation of their favorite group animals. Scientists working for government wildlife agencies might be tasked with identifying vulnerable lineages or populations of animals, assessing the threats they face, and penning a plan for how to save them. Many herpetologists work with or at zoos to breed, and possibly reintroduce, herps at risk of extinction. Perhaps the luckiest of them spend weeks and months in remote South American rainforests describing new species to science and rediscovering old ones, thus securing funding and support for the protection of their habitat. 

A particularly urgent line of inquiry that many have now devoted to is how to save the amphibians. Exacerbated by the exotic pet trade and irresponsible fishing practices, amphibian populations worldwide are in decline due to pathogens like chytrid fungi and Ranavirus. With these threats combined with habitat destruction and climate change, it’s to be expected that hundreds of amphibian species will go extinct in the next few decades unless we make rapid progress in stopping the spread of pathogens and protecting habitat.

If you find reptiles and amphibians intriguing and maybe even feel a sense of duty to help save them, you should absolutely consider becoming a herpetologist. Luckily, the path is straightforward: get a Bachelor’s degree in biology or zoology and participate in some herp-related research. While an advanced degree (Master’s or Doctorate) can certainly help you develop a strong research background and score a higher-level job or faculty position at a university, they aren’t necessary for you to become successful in the field. As previously referenced, plenty of herpetologists work more hands-on jobs with government wildlife agencies, zoos, museums, parks, and NGOs. 

About the author

Tasman Rosenfeld is one of the co-founders of SciTeens, and studies paleo-herpetology at Yale University. He has been in love with hunting herps, especially salamanders, and aliens his whole life. Connect with him about opportunities in herpetology or how to find salamanders/aliens: Follow him on Instagram (@tasmaster) to learn about all kinds of animals you never knew about.


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