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A backbone of discovery
Rare species abound in valuable vertebrate collection

Jonathan Campbell examines a West African Goliath frog
Jonathan Campbell examines a West African Goliath frog, part of UTA's renowned Collection of Vertebrates.
In March, thousands of snakes, lizards, toads, turtles, frogs and salamanders began moving across the campus. The migration posed no inconvenience--watch your step!--as these reptiles and amphibians were carefully preserved and traveled in large, glass jars.

After residing in the Life Sciences Building basement for almost 50 years, the UTA Collection of Vertebrates made the big move to a new home on South Davis Street near Maverick Stadium.

Established in 1956 by Professor Emeritus William Pyburn, the collection began as a teaching resource. Over time, it grew and grew, finally overflowing its original home. Today the herpetology portion alone is the largest in Texas, with approximately 100,000 specimens of amphibians and reptiles, and is one of the top 10 collections in the United States. The collection is also part of an internationally recognized research network.

According to Biology Department Chairman Jonathan Campbell, UTA houses the largest collection of Guatemalan specimens available anywhere in the world. The holdings are also particularly strong from Texas, Bolivia, Cameroon, Colombia and Mexico.

"Some of the materials we have represent the only known specimens in any museum. Some of these species are no doubt extinct," Dr. Campbell said. "We have more than 100 holotype specimens. These are unique specimens. The original scientific descriptions are based on these specimens, and they are very, very important."

Campbell played a major role in gathering many of the reptiles and amphibians in the collection, particularly the specimens from Guatemala, where he spent much of his childhood.

"The herpetofauna in Guatemala is not well-known," he explained. "We have discovered, and described as new to science, more than 10 percent of the known species from that country.

"I've probably discovered and described about 50 new species of snakes, salamanders and lizards. I must admit that when I find a new species, it gives me a real charge to think that I'm holding something in my hand that no other scientist has ever seen."

Thanks to growing up in Latin America, Campbell speaks fluent Spanish. He still spends every summer tromping through the far reaches of Central America in search of elusive, new species.

"There was a time, back in the late '70s and early '80s, when I had difficulty finding people to go into the field with me," he said. "For five years in a row, my field companions were bitten by venomous snakes. I got a bit of a reputation, but I've never been bitten in the field."

Then there's his reputation as an expert on venomous snakes. He has written several books, including The Venomous Reptiles of Latin America and The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere, 2 Vols.

Postdoctoral fellow Eric Smith isn't afraid to explore the back country with his mentor. He's studying the herpetofauna and associated parasites of Mexico with Campbell, and he frequently travels to gather data and samples.

"I am in charge of identifying and preparing specimens to be incorporated in the collection," Dr. Smith explained. "The UTA collection is valued as one of the most important for Texas, Bolivia and Sumatra and the most active for Mexico and Central America. Because of Dr. Campbell's work, it is also considered the most important collection for venomous reptiles of the Western Hemisphere.

"The research programs of Dr. Pyburn, and now Dr. Campbell, have made UTA one of the prime places in the world to study herpetology."

Researchers use UTA's collection to study evolutionary history, comparative anatomy, ecology and preservation. "We have a very active loan collection," Campbell said. "We send specimens all over the world."

Dwight Lawson, one of Campbell's former students, is general curator at Zoo Atlanta. As part of his dissertation work at UTA, he spent more than four years in the rainforests of Cameroon, Africa.

"I had malaria four times, a couple of those concurrent with typhoid," he said. "I've been charged by buffalo, bitten by a viper and had a field assistant drown in a river. I also got carjacked at gunpoint with Dr. Campbell."

The esteemed professor recalls several such incidents, mostly in Central America during the 1970s and '80s. On one occasion he was kidnapped and held by guerillas for several days.

"At one point the commander and I were speaking (in Spanish, of course) and he was going through my wallet," Campbell recalled. "He pulled out my American Express card and, in perfect English, said, 'I see you have the gold card.' Eventually they figured out that I was just a crazy snake collector and let me go."

Still, the rewards outnumber the dangers, at least for Dr. Lawson.

"In the face of global loss of biodiversity and extinctions, natural history museums like the herpetology museum at UTA often provide the only record that a species existed," he said. "They are invaluable tools."

Added Campbell: "This collection is a library of sorts. Every bottle is a distinct volume, a unique volume, perhaps a priceless volume."

— Sherry W. Neaves

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