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Erroneous Environs or Aberrant Activities? Using Historical Accounts to Resolve Unexpected Collectio

Mark O’Shea

Faculty of Science and Engineering

University of Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton, West Midlands WV1 1LY, United Kingdom

West Midland Safari Park

Bewdley, Worcestershire DY12 1LF, United Kingdom

Hinrich Kaiser

Department of Biology

Victor Valley College

Victorville, California 92395, USA

Department of Vertebrate Zoology National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20013, USA

It is only relatively recently that expeditions to the tropics have included herpetologists on their staff. Many of the great collecting expeditions of the “golden age of biological collecting” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were bereft of herpetologists, certainly those expeditions that ventured to the newly colonized island of New Guinea. The result was that large numbers of unidentified or misidentified frogs, lizards, and snakes ended up in European and American museums. Often specimens were batched together under catch-all names and remained that way until herpetologists examined them decades later, when the original expedition collectors were dead and unavailable to provide further data. Working through the collections of Papuan snakes in museums around the world, we have encountered numerous misidentified specimens, and those with incomplete collection locality data. Part of this problem will have arisen from the then popular technique of purchasing specimens from villagers. Such specimens come without any data relating to when or where they were collected, greatly devaluing them for biogeographic and taxonomic studies. Sometimes the naturalists themselves were less than precise when documenting their collection localities for reptiles, or specimens were shipped back to museums where their collection localities were transcribed as their ports of embarkation. Taking suspect collection localities on trust is to propagate the errors of the past, and to this end we have sought to resolve five seemingly spurious collection localities for specimens of the poorly known, but highly specious, secretive, endemic New Guinea elapid genus Toxicocalamus which currently contains thirteen taxa (O’Shea et al., 2015. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 161(6): 241-264). Three of these scenarios are presented here, while the other two are still under investigation. This interesting but time-consuming research, which involves a high degree of detective work, trawling through old newspapers and shipping manifests, can best be summed up as “forensic historical herpetology.”

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