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Herpetology

Updated on February 5, 2012
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Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. The reptile group includes turtles, crocodilians, rhynchocephalians, lizards, and snakes. The amphibian group includes frogs and toads, salamanders, and caecilians.

Herpetologists may choose to concentrate on one of the various subdivisions of herpetology. Herpetologists interested in ecology carry out population studies under natural conditions, studying growth and movement, reproductive habits, life expectancy, causes of death, sex ratios, and changes in population numbers. Others, interested in the distribution of amphibians and reptiles over the world, attempt to explain on the basis of present-day distributions where groups, such as the frogs, originated and how they spread. Such studies require fieldwork as well as the study of research collections maintained by universities and museums. A knowledge of reptile and amphibian fossils that provides clues to past distributions is also necessary, and some herpetologists pursue paleontology.

Still other herpetologists are systematists, primarily interested in the naming, classification, and evolutionary relationships of amphibians and reptiles. Such studies are essential to other fields of herpetology in which accurate species identification and knowledge of the relationship between species are important. Modern systematists still rely on museum collections, but many also use biochemical, behavioral, and genetic characteristics to unravel the evolutionary histories of living species.

Herpetologists may also specialize in the behavior of reptiles and amphibians. For example, they may try to determine how members of the same species recognize one another during the mating season, or which behavioral patterns are learned and which are primarily instinctive. Still others study the anatomy and physiology of reptiles and amphibians. Comparative anatomists gain insight into how the various body structures evolved; physiologists attempt to explain functional phenomena, such as how reptiles maintain relatively constant body temperature or how the excretory systems of amphibians and reptiles function to maintain water balance.

All herpetologists use the comparative method, seeking to understand the evolution of anatomical characteristics, behavior, and distribution patterns by detailed comparisons of the species.

In all the subdivisions of herpetology, there are exciting and important problems awaiting new approaches and solution.

Reptiles and amphibians, one of the largest groups of vertebrates, are still one of the least known.

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