The early (1900–1920) herpetological collections of the Natural History Museum were obtained by field parties working under the auspices of the State Biological Survey. Beginning in the 1920's, Dr. Edward H. Taylor (1889–1978) and his associates expanded collecting efforts to adjacent states, the southwestern U.S., and eventually to Mexico. Thus, as the first curator of the herpetological collections, Taylor influenced their growth and scope; there were more than 40,000 specimens in the collection at the time of Taylor's retirement as curator in 1954. Beginning in 1932, Taylor and graduate student Hobart M. Smith initiated collecting trips to Mexico. This work was done in the summers and financed by Taylor. The thousands of specimens resulting from these efforts became the EHT-HMS collection.
When Smith was hired by the University of Illinois, approximately one third of the material was purchased by the Natural History Museum at the University of Illinois; Taylor eventually sold the rest to the Field Museum of Natural History. None of the EHT-HMS collection is in the Natural History Museum at The University of Kansas. Likewise, the collections of caecilians assembled by Taylor in the 1950s and 1960s were sold to the Field Museum of Natural History. John M. Legler was appointed as a graduate student curator of the herpetological collections for the period 1954–1959, during which time the collections increased to 51,000 specimens; the increment primarily represented collections made in Costa Rica by Taylor.
William E. Duellman became Curator of Herpetology in 1959 and with grant support from the National Institutes of Health, National Geographic Society, and especially the National Science Foundation, he undertook extensive field studies in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
These field expeditions involved numerous graduate students, many of whom also returned to Latin America for individual studies. As a result of these field studies, the herpetological collections grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, but the single largest acquisition was 63,000 specimens collected by the late Albert Schwartz and associates in the West Indies. Consequently, the herpetological collections now approximate 330,000 specimens; the associated data are retrievable in a variety of formats from an electronic database. In addition to the usual alcoholic specimens, the collection contains large numbers of amphibian larvae and skeletons, especially anurans. Other important material associated with voucher specimens includes color transparencies, tape recordings of anurans, histological preparations, and frozen tissues. Crowding of collections was lessened greatly when in 1996 the alcoholic collections were moved into a new wing on Dyche Hall. In addition to the curatorial and collection storage facilities, the Biodiversity Institute has histological and molecular laboratories. The Division of Herpetology is equipped with a wide range of optical and computer equipment. A major asset is the herpetological library containing more than 3,000 bound volumes and 27,000 reprints.
In 1947, the university acquired a tract of 590 acres 7 miles northeast of Lawrence. This tract became the Natural History Reservation. The following year Henry S. Fitch (1909–2009) joined the faculty as an assistant professor and superintendent of the reservation. Thus began a half century of research on the biota of this mixed prairie and woodland area, resulting in some of the most thorough autecological studies ever completed on reptiles, e.g., Fitch's work on the blue-tailed skink (1954) and on the copperhead (1963). His book on a Kansas snake community (1999) summarizes 50 years of investigations.
Most of Duellman's research has dealt with various aspects of the Neotropical herpetofauna, ranging from a monograph of the hylid frogs in Middle America (1970 and 2001) to thorough studies of the biology of a herpetofauna in Amazonian Ecuador (1978) and one in Peru (2005). He reviewed the frogs of the genus Eleutherodactylus in the eastern Andes (1980) and in western Ecuador (1997) with John D. Lynch. His collaboration with Matthew P. Heinicke and S. Blair Hedges (2007–2009) resulted in a new phylogeny and classification of the frogs formerly placed in the genus Eleutherodactylus. A monograph on the evolution of marsupial frogs is in preparation. Duellman retired as Curator-in-Charge in 1997 and is now Curator Emeritus.
Linda Trueb was appointed as a second curator in the Division of Herpetology in 1975.
Her research focuses on the morphology of amphibians and has ranged from detailed studies on the cranial morphology of casque-headed hylid frogs (1970) and the phylogeny of recent and fossil pipoid frogs (1988) to the relationships of the Lissamphibia (1991). Duellman and Trueb combined efforts to produce the only existing compendium on amphibians, Biology of Amphibians (1986; reprinted in paperback in 1994). Trueb was appointed Curator-in-Charge in 1997 and served in that capacity until 2008. Although she currently has assumed administrative duties in the Biodiversity Institute, Trueb still pursues osteological studies of anurans and most recently has been investigating microhylid diversity.
In 1968 Joseph T. Collins was hired as a zoologist and technician in Herpetology and Ichthyology. Among other accomplishments, he was a founding member of the Kansas Herpetological Society, which encouraged many local amateur herpetologists to become active in herpetology of Kansas. Since 1981 Collins has not been formally associated with the Division of Herpetology although he remained in the Lawrence area and, in the 1990s, founded the Center for North America Herpetology (http://www.cnah.org/index.asp).
John E. Simmons was appointed Collection Manager in 1981. In addition to managing daily routines in the collection and cataloguing new material, he took an active role in the conservation of natural history collections, and he was involved in several efforts focused on the assessment, care, and maintenance of fluid-preserved specimens and natural history collection management. He retired in 2007. Andrew Campbell, a graduate of the Museum Studies Program at The University of Kansas, replaced Simmons as collection manager.
In January 2005, Rafe Brown (a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin where he was coadvised by KU herpetology graduates David Cannatella and David Hillis) was appointed as the new Assistant Curator of Herpetology and Assistant Professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Brown’s research focuses on evolutionary processes of diversification in island archipelagos of Southeast Asia and Melanesia and his arrival at KU represented the advent of a new field program in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands. Brown was promoted to Curator-in-Charge in 2008.
As curators in the Natural History Museum Duellman, Trueb, and Brown have held professorships in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (formerly Systematics and Ecology) and have taught a variety of graduate level courses in herpetology, biogeography, morphology, scientific illustration, phylogeography and systematics.
KU Biodiversity Institute graduate student curatorial assistantships provide essential assistance to the curators and collection manager and these experiences give the student an excellent background in curatorial practices in herpetology. In this way, several curators of herpetological U.S. based collections (e.g., David C. Cannatella, Darrel R. Frost, Charles W. Myers) obtained their curatorial training. Graduate students have come from throughout the United States, including Puerto Rico, as well as many foreign countries: Argentina, Brazil, Burma, Chile, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Germany, India, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Zambia, and Malaysia. Since 1960, 31 students have completed Masters degrees and 58 have completed Ph.D. degrees. Also, numerous undergraduates who undertook research in herpetology have gone elsewhere for their graduate work and are now active in the field of herpetology; these include Neil B. Ford, John J. Wiens, the late Pere Alberch and Joseph Slowinsky.