When I was a young child, finding a frog, salamander, or snake in my backyard was a highlight of my day. My parents encouraged me to observe the animals I found briefly before releasing them where I had found them. As I grew up, my fascination with the world of reptiles and amphibians continued to grow and flourish.
I clearly remember the moment I first realized I wanted to be a herpetologist, and since then, that conviction has never wavered. But new acquaintances often still ask me, what is a herpetologist?
A herpetologist is a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians, also known collectively as herpetofauna. Herpetologists can work in a wide variety of specialities and any of the animals contained within the classes Reptilia and Amphibia fall under the category of herpetology.
Let’s dive deeper in the wonderful world of herpetologists and the fascinating animals they study.
Why Are They Called “Herpetologists”?
The definition of herpetologist (HER-puh-TOL-uh-gist) is a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians.
The word herpetology comes from the Greek word herpeton, meaning creeping animal.
The collective classification of reptiles and amphibians, and the name herpetofauna, dates back to Carl Linnaeus’s original classifications of animals in the 18th century. Linnaeus was the first to develop the binomial (two name) system we use today for organisms’ scientific names, and many of his names and classifications are still used hundreds of years later.
The word “herpetologist” follows the traditional naming patterns for fields of science, such as geologists who study rocks, and ornithologists who study birds. The suffix -ology means “a branch of knowledge”.
While reptiles and amphibians are not actually very closely related, with their last common ancestor living over 350 million years ago, they are grouped together today because Linnaeus grouped them together hundreds of years ago!
|Dry, Scaly Skin||No||Yes|
|Wet, Smooth Skin||Yes||No|
|Adult Form at Birth||No||Yes|
While both groups are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, in many ways reptiles and amphibians are more different than they are similar. Have a look at the above chart to see examples of why these animals are so different.
What Does a Herpetologist Do?
Herpetologists may work in schools to educate the general public on reptiles and amphibians, or in zoos or in natural history museums caring for animals. Herpetologists may also focus on research studying different species and their characteristics.
While all herpetologists work with reptiles and/or amphibians, the specifics may vary substantially.
Some herpetologists may work behind the scenes in an institution like a zoo or natural history museum, caring for live animals.
Others may work in a similar institution educating the public about reptiles and amphibians.
Some herpetologists focus on research, studying different species and their characteristics.
So while herpetology can cover a very wide range of jobs, any scientist working with reptiles and amphibians can be a herpetologist!
Many institutions such as zoos and natural history museums may have different herpetologists working in multiple, or even all, of these roles. Some care for live animals, some educate the public, and some focus on research.
Herpetological research may entail working with collections of preserved specimens, or even going out into the wild to study animals in their native habitat.
Educators may have to overcome a lot of prejudice from the public, especially regarding snakes. This job is critically important for convincing the public to coexist peacefully with the wildlife in their own backyards.
Finally, caretakers of captive collections may have to have the knowledge and confidence to work with a wide array of animals, from tiny, delicate frogs, to large, powerful snakes.
Can You Study Herpetology in College?
Unfortunately, few colleges offer degrees in herpetology. Most people wanting to pursue a career in herpetology start by earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, zoology, or something else related to natural science.
At the graduate level, students may then be able to specialize further into a more herpetology-focused degree, but even then it can be challenging to find.
However, a broader biology or zoology degree will typically allow an aspiring herpetologist to get their foot in the door of a herpetological job.
Thankfully, the industry as a whole is understanding of the difficulty of obtaining a degree in herpetology, so experience is typically weighed very heavily in hiring.
What’s the Difference Between a Herpetologist and a Herper?
While “herpetologist” means specifically a scientist who works in some capacity with reptiles and amphibians, “herper” is a much broader descriptor. Anyone can call themselves a herper.
Typically, those who choose to call themselves herpers will be people who are passionate about the captive keeping of reptiles and amphibians, or “field herpers”- people who enjoy looking for reptiles and amphibians in the wild.
So while few herpers are actually herpetologists, most, if not all, herpetologists are also herpers!
Is a Herpetologist a Doctor?
Herpetologists are sometimes considered Doctors. While herpetologists are typically not doctors in the traditional sense, a herpetologist may be an exotic veterinary doctor, or have earned a doctorate in their field.
Many herpetologists are technically doctors, even if they aren’t doctors in the standard medical sense, since many herpetologists choose to earn doctorate degrees in their field, thereby becoming doctors!
Additionally, some herpetologists choose to pursue veterinary medicine, specifically for exotic animals such as reptiles and amphibians. This is wonderful, since any exotic pet owner will know how hard it can be to find a good vet for your pets!
Is a Herpetologist a Scientist?
While herpetologists can work in a very wide variety of jobs, at the end of the day, they are all scientists! They are scientists that share a love of reptiles and amphibians, and want to see a better world for them, whether through proper care and husbandry, research, veterinary care, or conservation.
Science is a very broad topic. Biology, chemistry, and astronomy are just a few of the many, many other types of science people study. Any study of our world, the way it works, and anything that exists within it can be considered science.
Since reptiles and amphibians are a part of our world (and a very important one too), herpetology is inherently a science. That means those who study herpetology- herpetologists- are scientists.
I, personally, never thought I would be a scientist. After I began pursuing herpetology, I had a “lightbulb moment” one day – I’m a scientist now! It was incredibly exciting to realize that my passion had turned into a career path I never would have expected.
Herpetology is an exciting, engaging study of incredible animals, and I hope it fascinates you just as much as it fascinates me.
This article was written in collaboration with another Master Herpetologist certified by the Amphibian Foundation.