It’s Time to Retire the Use of the Term “Squamate” from Public Discourse

Let’s face it, “squamate” doesn’t work. It’s an ugly word, and most people don’t know what it means–if anything, it conjures up “squamous cell carcinoma,” a type of skin cancer.

Slide1 More importantly, the term is not needed. Squamate comes from the scientific order Squamata, the lizards and snakes. But we know that snakes evolved from lizards–they are one type of lizard. In other words, lizards do not form a monophyletic group; they are paraphyletic with respect to snakes.

Does this remind you of any other major group of vertebrate? Say, birds and dinosaurs? We all know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, they are a type of dinosaur; dinosaurs are paraphyletic with respect to birds. And so, what is the solution to this problem? We now realize that birds are dinosaurs, members of the Dinosauria. Indeed, failing to recognize birds as a type of dinosaur commits the sin of paraphyly, obscuring the fact that some dinosaurs (in the old sense) are more closely related to birds than they are to some other dinosaurs.

And so, for the same reason, we should start referring to snakes as one type of lizards and, in turn, when we use the term “lizard,” we should understand that we are referring to snakes as well. In other words “Lizard” = Squamata. And, hence, we have no need to use the term “squamate” in common discourse.


About Jonathan Losos

Professor and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. I've spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don't know.

5 thoughts on “It’s Time to Retire the Use of the Term “Squamate” from Public Discourse

  1. You want to be careful fooling around with higher taxonomy or, as the ichthyologists are inclined to remind us, all vertebrates are fish.

  2. Removing “squamate” from discussions geared toward the general public is not a bad idea. Scientists should always try to limit jargon in these situations. However, replacing “squamate” with “lizard” doesn’t clear up the confusion since most people (including most biologists) are not aware that snakes are comfortably nestled amongst the other lizards on the phylogeny. I think we should continue using “lizards and snakes” when referring to the Squamata simply to ensure the public knows what we are talking about.
    The problem is all of these “legless lizards”…

    1. I agree that re-defining “lizard” to include snakes would cause too much confusion among the majority of people, who don’t understand the relationship between lizards and snakes (or cladistically-based taxonomy in general).

      In addition, it would be necessary to adopt some awkward new term such as “non-snake squamates” for use in general discussions about the groups now known as “lizards”.

      It’s probably best to recognize that “lizard” as traditionally defined, although not corresponding to a valid clade, is a useful informal term.

  3. Losos and I have been disagreeing about some things for ~30 yrs now but I’m with him on this one! Lazell is right of course that lineages derived with respect to their closest relatives by traits we emphasize (wings, limblessness, big brains) are commonplace, but would anyone now ESTABLISH a paraphyletic taxon? Ready to elevate Chiroptera out of Mammals or Homo out of Primates…and why not, aren’t those lineages at least as special as snakes among squamates? Remarkably little time was required for “birds are dinosaurs”–only a few decades ago viewed as a radical, even ridiculous position–to become accepted in common discourse. I too say snakes are lizards, let’s get on with it!

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