An Anole By Any Other Name?

This Jamaican twig anole, Anolis valencienni, was first described as Xiphocercus valencienni. Photo by Jonathan Losos

Asked Juliet of Romeo, “What’s in a name?” I pose a question to all the Anolis enthusiasts out there: Have you ever heard of the genus Xiphocercus? How about Audantia? As it turns out, several species recognized today as belonging to the genus Anolis were once placed into these defunct genera. For example, the twig anole A. valencienni was, for many years, known as Xiphocercus valencienni (Cope 1864) and, prior to that, as Anolis valencienni (DumĂ©ril and Bibron 1837), Dactyloa valencienni (Fitzinger 1843), Placopsis ocellata (Gosse 1850), and Anolis leucocephalus (Hallowell 1856). Obviously, before it was even known as Xiphocercus valencienni, the genus for this taxon was in flux.

To answer Juliet, a name is a genus and species, and whenever a new taxon is described, it is placed into an existing genus (else a new one is created, if merited) and given a species name. The species name can refer to a distinctive aspect of the organisms’ morphology or ecology. Not uncommonly, the name of a notable naturalist is used for the species name. When Cochran (1935) described what we know now as Anolis darlingtoni, she compared it to Xiphocercus valencienni, to which it bore a strong resemblance. Both species are twig anoles, and so based on their morphological similarity it was only reasonable that this new species be called Xiphocercus darlingtoni, named after the famed zoologist Phillip Darlington.

Now known as Anolis etheridgei, this species was first described as A. darlingtoni by Cochran (1939). Photo by Luke Mahler

Here’s where it gets trickier. In 1939, Cochran described a new lizard from Hispaniola, which she called Anolis darlingtoni, in another nod to Darlington. In 1959 Richard Etheridge completed his dissertation, which was the first large-scale phylogenetic analysis of anoles and anole-like lizards. The results of this analysis were unequivocal – anoles are a monophyletic clade and related genera are actually phylogenetically nested within this group. Thus both Xiphocercus darlingtoni and Anolis darlingtoni were, in fact, Anolis darlingtoni. An anole by any other name is still an anole. Ernest Williams made quick work of this problem and, seeing as how Xiphocercus darlingtoni came first, this taxon became A. darlingtoni. What was previously known as Anolis darlingtoni Williams changed to A. etheridgei, after the scientist who applied the first comprehensive phylogeny to anoles.

If you look at Cochran (1939), you’ll also notice the brief description of another lizard, Audantia shrevei. This genus also went the way of Xiphocercus in Etheridge’s work. This species was named after Ben Shreve, a volunteer in the herpetological collections at the Museum of Comparative Zoology for several decades. For those unfamiliar with the tale, Ben Shreve, more formally of the old jewelry dynasty of Shreve, Crump, and Low, was independently wealthy and fond of natural history. As the story goes, Shreve’s petition to work as a volunteer in the Ornithology Department had just been rejected and, as he was leaving the museum through the basement, the famed naturalist Thomas Barbour snatched the dejected Shreve to assist in some tasks in the collections. This fortuitous meeting led to a collaboration enduring decades, and resulting in the description of many new species, including several anoles. Barbour has many reptiles named in his honor, as well, not least of which is Anolis barbouri, a Hispaniolan species from the Chamaelinorops clade.

What’s in a name? The names of genera came and went, but the names Barbour, Darlington, Etheridge, and Shreve endured.

Cochran (1935):

Cochran (1939):

About marthamunoz

Martha is working on her PhD on the thermal ecology and evolution of anoles in the Losos Lab at Harvard University.
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