The Kings of Greater Antillean Anole Taxonomy II: Thomas Barbour

I previously introduced my mission to recognize the five anole systematists responsible for describing the majority of the anole species found in the Greater Antilles.  The first king of Greater Antillean anole taxonomy was the prolific E. D. Cope.  Cope was the last in a line of authors who described anole species that he’d never actually spent time with in the field (see also Duméril and Bibron).  The next king on my list, by contrast, was an avid field biologist and conducted field work in the West Indies throughout his career.

Thomas Barbour (1884-1946) was also the don of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard for nearly 20 years.  He described eight species of Cuban anoles, most of which belong to the sagrei species group (e.g., A. bremeri, A. mestrei, A. allogus, A. quadriocellifer, A. rubribarbus, A. ahli).  Although Barbour’s tendencies to convert trinomials into binomials and to describe species based on relatively subtle morphological differences may have led to the belief that he was a “splitter,” most of Barbour’s species continue to be recognized to this day.

Barbour is remembered in obituaries by James Peters and Henry Bigelow as a man whose spirit and accomplishments matched his enormous physical presence (6′ 6″ and 330 lbs.).  Born on Martha’s Vineyard the son of an Irish Linen tycoon, Barbour’s wealth and privilege permitted pursuit of his unusual academic endeavors.  Barbour had a passion for nature from an early age and his favorite locale for field work and future position in science were all but determined by the age of fifteen following inspirational visits to the Bahamas and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.  In spite of all his scientific accomplishments, Barbour self-identified as a naturalist throughout life and mocked the increasingly narrow expertise of his colleagues “who prefer to know more and more about less and less, and so are infinitely more erudite than I.”

Barbour completed his PhD work on the zoogeography of the East Indies at Harvard under E. L. Mark in 1910 and was appointed Associate Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians the same year.  Many of the specimens for his thesis were obtained on a round-the-world honeymoon, during which time Barbour and his wife “worked literally night and day, often with native assistants, gathering specimens of all classes of vertebrates and of insects” (Bigelow 1952).  Although Barbour remained interested in East Indies and occasionally published on its fauna, his attention shifted to his boyhood stomping grounds in the Caribbean.  By 1914 Barbour would publish his first major volume on Caribbean biogeography: “A Contribution to the Zoogeography of the West Indies.”

His work at Harvard was interrupted only by a stint doing special intelligence work in Cuba during World War I.  In spite of his role in the war, the first volume of Barbour’s most famous publication – the “Check List of North American Amphibians and Reptiles” that he coauthored with Stejneger – was published in 1917.  Shortly thereafter, he published his impressive monograph on “The Herpetology of Cuba” with Charles T. Ramsden.

Although Barbour’s near photographic memory permitted expertise in a wide range of taxa, anoles are said to be have been Barbour’s favorite subject.  Although he long considered a complete taxonomic revision of anoles, Barbour eventually deemed this task too daunting and settled on publishing extensive annotated species lists for neotropical island anoles (Barbour 1930) and mainland species from Mexico southward (Barbour 1934).

Toward the end of his career, Barbour spent some of his last traveling years touring the world by yacht before going on to publish extensively on his travels.  He published a series in the Atlantic Monthly that became the best seller “A Naturalist at Large” (1943) and relived Cuban experiences with “A Naturalist in Cuba” in 1945.

In addition to his published work, Barbour’s contributions include his important role in founding field stations on Barro Colorado Island in Panama and in Cienfuegos, Cuba.  The former persists to the present day as one of the world’s premier stations for tropical research and has been the location for a number of important anole studies.    Barbour was also named the MCZ’s fourth director in 1927 and would hold this role until his death in 1946.  Under Barbour’s direction, the museum dramatically expanded its holdings, in part due to purchases made using Barbour’s personal wealth.

Barbour is also remembered for having helped modernize the MCZ in several important ways, including better integrating the museum with the University to the point that some curators obtained appointments as Professors on the faculty of Harvard’s College of Arts and Sciences.  This move would help set the stage for the next wave of anole research, conducted by the third king of anole systematics and the impressive students that trained under his supervision.  Who’s the next king?

About Rich Glor

Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester and longtime anole enthusiast.
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1 Response to The Kings of Greater Antillean Anole Taxonomy II: Thomas Barbour

  1. scantlebury says:

    Barbour was ahead of his time when you consider his work on Sphaerodactylus, literally the most overlooked component of the West Indian herpetofauna. A passage from his 1921 volume “Sphaerodactylus” borders on poetry.

    “Their beauty of form, of skin, and of movement is very great. The integument of many species has a pecuUar and beautifully silky quality in life and the eyes of these little creatures glisten like
    tiny jewels.”

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