Book Review: The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles

The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles, by Bo Beolens, Michael Watkins, and Michael Grayson, Johns Hopkins University Press (www.press.jhu.edu), 2011, 296 pages, $100

All too often, we assume a species’ scientific name is just that: scientific. A binomal or Latin name identifies which genus and species a living thing is assigned. But when species are described and named, there is oftentimes a story behind the binomial, a story that entraps the naturalist that originally collected or described a species like an insect in amber. More likely than not, you can read into a binomial the hint of a surname (the Tehachapi slender salamander’s binomial Batrachoseps stebbinsi clearly bears the name of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins). But where do you turn if you’re curious about the eponymous significance of stebbinsi or lecontei or mearnsi? Enter The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles.

All told, The Eponym Dictionary… accounts for a whopping 4,173 reptile species (and genera) named in honor of some 2,330 individuals and an assorted cast of indigenous peoples, fictional characters, and biblical or mythical references.

Tackling just the western reptile species of North America alone, for example, The Eponym Dictionary… delivers the bios from agassizii to Xantusia:

  • Agassiz’s land (desert) tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) [Jean Louis Rudolphe Agassiz]
  • Sierra garter snake (Thamnophis couchii) [Darius Nash Couch]
  • pigmy short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglasi) [David Douglas]
  • valley garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi) [Dr. Henry Sheldon Fitch]
  • long-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) [Dr. William Gambel / Dr. Frederick Adolph Wislizenius]
  • Gilbert’s skink (Eumeces gilberti) [Dr. Charles Henry Gilbert]
  • two-striped garter snake (Thamnophis hammondii) [Dr. William Alexander Hammond]
  • sharp-tailed snake (Contia tenuis), long-nosed snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei) [Dr. John Lawrence Le Conte]
  • flat-tailed horned lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) [Brigadier General George Archibald McCall]
  • banded rock lizard (Petrosaurus mearnsi[Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Alexander Mearns]
  • speckled rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchelli) [Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell]
  • western skink (Eumeces skiltonianus) [Dr. Avery Judd Skilton]
  • common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana) [Major Howard Stansbury]
  • Henshaw’s night lizard (Xantusia henshawi) [Louis Janos (John) Xantus de Vesey / Henry Wetherbee Henshaw]
  • leaf-toed gecko (Phyllodactylus xanti), desert night lizard (Xantusia vigilis), Island night lizard (X. riversiana[Louis Janos (John) Xantus de Vesey]

Absentee, however, were the eponyms of the San Joaquin coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum ruddocki) [John C. Ruddock] and Morafka’s desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) [Dr. David J. Morafka] (the latter understandable, given the new desert tortoise species’ description in July 2011 when The Eponym Dictionary… was published).

Arranged alphabetically, The Eponym Dictionary… is easy enough to use. Simply look up the personal surname embedded in the binomial and you will find a list of reptile species named in their honor, followed by a short biography of the individual. For example, botanist David Douglas, honored by the pigmy short-horned lizard, is also remembered in the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), while it’s worth knowing that John Xantus, after whom any number of reptile species were named, was a renowned pathological liar.

Instead of starting from a binomial, you can just as easily look up prominent naturalists to see how they’ve been honored. Dr. Joseph Richard Slevin and Dr. John Van Denburgh, for example – two prominent naturalists and herpetologists during the California Academy of Sciences’ inception, have between them 17 reptile species alone named in their honor.

With all that this dictionary has to offer, the handsome cover – an assemblage of reptiles illustrated by Adolphe Millot from the French language encyclopedia Nouveau Larousse Ilustré – is icing on the cake. The only real drawback is the hefty price tag; at $100, you may need to consider a layaway plan. Nevertheless, once you’ve bankrolled it, The Eponym Dictionary… is not only an invaluable reference, it’s also fun reading on a rainy day.

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