A Taxonomic Epiphany Regarding Anolis utowanae (Not Really)

I awoke to a placid summer day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 3 August of 2013. My hosts at the aptly named Friendly Inn had prepared a sumptuous breakfast, which I had again slept through before embarking on my then-daily walk to the Museum of Comparative Zoology. As I strolled on, my concerns vacillated between the upcoming Catalina Wine Mixer and the validity of the lizard name Anolis utowanae, an enigmatic name associated with a single specimen ostensibly from Mazatlan, Mexico. Perhaps distracted by the excitement of the coming social season portended by the Mixer, I wandered a bit longer than usual and entered a quaint shop of letters on Massachusetts Avenue. The shop had on display a historical map featuring the population growth of the Pacific shipping ports shortly after the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. As I gazed on that map, I experienced an epiphany regarding A. utowanae. What if Thomas Barbour, the describer of this problematic species, had in fact collected the specimen earlier, on the other side of the canal in the West Indies? My jubilance at this realization was such that I could not help but engage the curious shopkeep.

“Sir, with this display, do you realize what you’ve done?” I asked, gesturing towards the map.

The shopkeep stared at me, wide-eyed in bated anticipation.

“You have helped solve one of the great mysteries of Mexican anole taxonomy, ” I told him.

His pride was palpable as I exited the shop and proceeded hurriedly to the Museum to test my hypothesis.

The above narrative is largely but not completely true. It is a fact that I was in Cambridge in August 2013, I did walk to the MCZ every day, and I often thought about the Catalina Wine Mixer during my morning walk. But the important part—the part that might make this story a passable introduction to a scientific paper 80 years ago—is patently false. There was no epiphany about A. utowanae. Rather, my suspicion of the status of this name had been growing ever since I’d gotten serious about Mexican anoles. The time at MCZ just gave me the material to write a paper establishing this species as a junior synonym (Poe 2014; available now for free on the Breviora website!).

Figure 1. Thomas Barbour. He would hide his disgust if he weren't so disappointed in you. (Photo: Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts)

Figure 1. Thomas Barbour. He would hide his disgust if he weren’t so disappointed in you. (Photo: Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts)

Some readers of Anole Annals are likely aware of the story of Anolis utowanae. The species was described in 1932 with type locality near Mazatlan, Mexico. In the ensuing years, no additional specimens were procured despite the accessibility of the type locality and a lot of interest in Sinaloan herps. Thomas Barbour (Figure 1), of MCZ and anole fame and one of the kings of the Rich White Guy on a Yacht period of herpetological exploration, began the Anolis utowanae species description with a detailed story of the collection of the type specimen. Here it is:

On a day last spring, April 10, 1931, while driving with Mrs. Barbour and my daughter, Mary, to a finca some miles north of Mazatlan, we stopped in a dusty lane to let a herd of calves pass by. The herd was followed by a barefooted Indian who trudged wearily behind them through the deep dust. He carried in his hand a long lashed whip and from time to time he snapped it viciously and in so doing killed the lizards on rocks or fence posts by his way with most extraordinary skill. We watched him some time quite fascinated. I asked him what on earth he was pocketing these lizards for. He looked at me with surprise and then added, “I am taking them home to feed my cats.” I bought what he had for a few cents. It was obvious that he felt quite certain that he had been dealing with a person of unsound mind as he walked on looking at the coins, for it surely had never occurred to him that such small game had a cash value. Among these lizards one, I feel quite certain, is unknown.

                    —-Barbour (1932), description of Anolis utowanae

Thomas Barbour’s story of the discovery of A. utowanae shares some qualities with my epiphany story. His treatment is at least partially untrue and, more particularly, I am convinced that the important part of Barbour’s story—that he obtained a new species of lizard on an April day in 1931 in Mazatlan—is false. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I was at MCZ in August of 2013 to collect additional data on some projects in my lab that require information on every species of Anolis. Thus, I was addressing important questions like “how many toe lamellae does Anolis granuliceps have?” (answer: about 15) and “how many scales are across the snout at the second canthals in the parvauritus version of Anolis biporcatus? (answer: 11.5). In the context of this work, we must make a decision on every species of Anolis: Valid or Not? These decisions go beyond simple literature searches; we really are trying to predict what species are likely to end up valid in the foreseeable future. For example, we are not going to include Anolis ibague Williams 1975 in our key to Anolis, because we have visited the type locality of ibague (Ibague, Tolima, Colombia) and found several individuals of the supersimilar and earlier-described species Anolis sulcifrons, some displaying the purportedly unusual headscales of the type specimen (a juvenile female) of A. ibague (sorry, Ernest). We could include A. ibague in our analyses—virtually any list of Anolis species would include this name—but if there are no traits to distinguish ibague and sulcifrons, and we are fairly certain ibague is a junior synonym of sulcifrons…would such an approach really be scientifically responsible?

I mention the example of Anolis ibague because A. utowanae was a similar case, but with a more concrete answer. When I was at MCZ in 2013, we were finishing an electronic key to all Mexican Anolis and we needed to know whether the name utowanae is valid. Some recent work (Kohler, 2012; Nieto et al. 2013) had cleared up several other Mexican anole names, but A. utowanae remained an enigma. With the MCZ type specimen (MCZ 31035) in front of me, I gave myself two nights to figure this out.

The key ingredients to elucidating the status of Anolis utowanae were 1) the wonderful MCZ anole collection (Figure 2); 2) the nearly equally wonderful MCZ herpetology library, including texts by Barbour; 3) the excellent paper by Henderson and Powell (2004); 4) my electronic (Lucid) key to Anolis; 5) my lab’s inability to find A. utowanae during a stop near Mazatlan in 2011 (not the safest place to be walking around at night looking for anoles); and 6) later, the diary of Thomas Barbour’s daughter Mary (Leaves from my Diary, 1932). Oh, and the kindness and hospitality of Joe Martinez, Tsuyoshi Takahashi and Jonathan Woodward (Messrs. Losos and Rosado usually are equally tolerant hosts, but they were absent during this particular visit).


Figure 2. As most Anole Annals readers know, MCZ has a fantastic anole collection. Here are some of the specimens I examined during my visit.

Put these elements together and you get my paper published this month in Breviora. I will spare you the time of reading the paper and summarize: Thomas Barbour apparently collected the Anolis utowanae specimen during his stop on Grand Cayman during the earlier part of a family voyage from Miami to Baja Mexico via the Panama Canal on a yacht called the Utowana. That is, Anolis utowanae = A. conspersus (Figure 3), and the skepticism of workers like Stuart, McDiarmid, and Lieb regarding the status of this name is validated. The lizard-whipping incident described in the paper probably actually occurred, but evidently involved a different lizard than the A. utowanae specimen. At some point Barbour mistakenly attributed a Grand Cayman anole to Mexico. Specifically, he associated an Anolis conspersus with the event where he and daughter Mary met a local cattle farmer in Mazatlan. How did this switch happen?


Figure 3. Can you distinguish the Anolis utowanae type specimen (right) from Anolis conspersus (left)?

Well, I don’t know how that happened. I have discussed the utowanae issue, and Barbour’s work, with many anole folks, including Ernest Williams. In talking about Barbour’s taxonomic work there seems to be some wink-wink, nudge-nudge “it was Barbour” kinds of nonexplanation explanations. In the context of the utowanae issue—admittedly an egregious mistake by Barbour—it must be remembered that Barbour was part of a different era in systematics; a time when species descriptions were less comparative, and getting to remote places and chronicling the things you had caught was the basis of most taxonomic work. I hope we can acknowledge the mistake of Anolis utowanae while recognizing that Barbour made many great contributions to MCZ and to Herpetology in general.

Henderson, RW, and R Powell. 2004. Thomas Barbour and the Utowana voyages (1929–1934) in the West Indies. Bonner zoologische Beitrage 52: 297–309.

Kohler, GK. 2012. Taxonomic status of two enigmatic Mexican anoles: Anolis cumingii Peters 1863 and Anolis guentherii Bocourt 1873 (Reptilia, Squamata, Dactyloidae). Zootaxa 3551: 82–88.

Nieto Montes de Oca, A, S Poe, S Scarpetta, LN Gray, CS Lieb. 2013. Synonyms for some species of Mexican anoles (Squamata: Dactyloidae). Zootaxa 3637 (4):484–492.

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