The first herpetological specimen was received by the Academy in December of 1853, a Galàpagos tortoise carapace. Between 1853 and 1895, the herpetology collections were part of the Department of Zoology. In 1895 John Van Denburgh was appointed as Curator of the reptile and amphibian collection by the Academy's Board of Trustees, and a Department of Herpetology was established as a separate research unit within the Academy museum. During these early years Van Denburgh collected mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area and the desert regions of California and western Arizona. The collections at the turn of the century numbered about 3,700 specimens.


In 1904, Van Denburgh hired Joseph R. Slevin to participate in the Academy's Galàpagos expedition, slated to leave the following year. Slevin worked for the Academy until 1957. Slevin and other members of the Academy's staff left San Francisco in mid-1905 on a 18-month trip to the Galàpagos which yielded 3,867 reptile specimens including 409 tortoises and sea turtles. The Galàpagos reptile collection is the largest such collection in existence.

Tortoise's from Galapagos Expedition (c1906)

Herpetology Curator Dr. Joseph Richard Slevin, (1881-1957)

Of particular importance are the collections made by Joseph C. Thompson and Victor Kühne. Thompson was stationed in the Philippine Islands, where he made extensive collections in the vicinity of the Subic Bay Naval Base and nearby Manila. Kuehne also traveled through eastern Asia and deposited extensive collections at the Academy. A total of 11,787 specimens where accessioned to the CAS collections from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Philippines, China, and Malaysia. The Thompson-Kuehne collections formed the basis of the Department's strong Old World holdings.


Beginning in 1907, Van Denburgh sent Slevin on a series of collecting trips, first in California, then Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, and finally to Baja California and mainland Mexico. The collections amassed during these trips formed the basis of more than 40 publications by Van Denburgh, culminating in his massive two-volume monograph, Reptiles of North America (1922).


Slevin continued to collect in California and Baja California, Mexico from 1919 to 1925. During this time Slevin took part in five expeditions to Baja California and accumulated over 7,900 specimens. By 1930, the Academy's collection numbered 65,053 specimens.


Just prior to his death in 1924, Van Denburgh completed the purchase of approximately one-third of the Edward Harrison Taylor Philippine collection (approximately 2,500 specimens), which augmented the Thompson-Kühne collections obtained during the preceding decade.


From 1924 to the end of the Second World War and into the mid-1950's, Joseph Slevin alone attended to the needs of the Department. For a time he continued to travel and collect in Baja California and mainland Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and Australia. However, the depression of the 1930s and the war years that followed effectively curtailed these activities. Following the Galapagos expedition and up to time of the Second World War the collections grew to about 80,000 specimens.


Herpetology Research Associate Steven Clement Anderson

Herpetology Curator Alan E. Leviton with Research Associates Ted Papenfuss and Steven Clement Anderson

The rapid rise of interest in herpetology among university students during the post-war years had its impact on the Academy. Students from the University of California and Stanford availed themselves of the facilities. Further contributions by Slevin, students, friends of the Department, and field activity by members of the Academy's staff, led to a third period of rapid growth in the collection, and this has continued with only minor fluctuations to the present day. For the most part, the new materials came from distant places such as Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, northern and eastern Africa, and Turkey, with only small numbers of specimens being accessioned from the western United States.


In 1962, the Stanford collection of amphibians and reptiles was transferred to the Academy. That collection, numbering 53,299 cataloged specimens, complemented the CAS collections with additional material from the Galàpagos Islands from the Heller and Snodgrass 1889 expedition, a large Philippine collection made by Angel C. Alcala and Walter C. Brown, as well as substantial collections from Mexico, Brazil and Peru.

Contact the department

  • Herpetology
  • California Academy of Sciences
  • 55 Music Concourse Drive
  • San Francisco, CA 94118
  • 415-379-5292 (direct)


natural history collection

The Importance of Natural History Collections


Front Cover Hearst Publication

CAS Special Publication: The Coral Triangle - The 2011 Hearst Philippine Biodiversity Expedition


The old saying “You are what you eat” takes on new significance in the most comprehensive analysis to date of early human teeth from Africa.

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