Biology of the Reptilia: Preface to the Final Volume

By Kraig Adler

After 42 years, this volume brings to a close one of the most ambitious publishing projects in the annals of biological science. Biology of the Reptilia is a fitting monument to its originator and senior editor—the late Carl Gans—whose encyclopedic knowledge of reptilian biology and indomitable vision, energy, and focus are here fully on display. The last comprehensive review of reptilian biology was authored a century earlier by the Dutch anatomist, Christiaan Karel Hoffmann, in Bronn’s classic series, Klassen und Ordnungen des Thier-Reichs. The section on reptiles, in three volumes (1879–1890), was about 2,100 pages long and covered morphology and embryology (see this volume, page 419).

22 volumes and nearly 13,800 pages
Gans’s goal was much broader. Biology of the Reptilia covers behavior, development, ecology, neurology, and physiology, in addition to morphology which was fundamental to the rest, all in 22 volumes and nearly 13,800 pages. As he wrote in volume 1, his goal was “to facilitate future work rather than place a tombstone upon past knowledge.” Surveys of the literature, he noted, had disclosed critical gaps in our knowledge and new investigations were thus needed to complete many of the chapters. He expected that this series would not be the last word, and hoped it would “prove germinal in inducing additional study.”

Gans was the most internationally connected and travelled herpetologist of his generation.
He used this advantage, together with his vast knowledge of the global biological community and his prestige, to attract leading specialists to contribute chapters. The numbers of authors and countries represented by them (169 authors from 21 countries) are a measure of the scope and internationalization of studies on reptilian biology. About half of the contributors were from the United States, with most of the rest from France (with 14 authors), Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Russia, Israel, and Italy, in descending order. Argentina, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and Uganda were each represented by one author. Many authors are not well known to the herpetological community because they are specialists on the biological topic and not necessarily on reptiles. Several are from medical schools, academies, or other institutions not considered centers of herpetology, which reflected Gans’s unrivaled knowledge of who the best persons were to tackle given subjects.

He was intent on having volumes priced so that students could afford them.
He also paid close attention to practical matters. For example, at the outset he was intent on having volumes priced so that students could afford them. He insisted that Academic Press, the original publisher in 1969, offer books at us$10. When prices inevitably crept up, he asked them to eliminate the color-printed dust jackets to help moderate prices. When Academic Press could no longer keep prices low, he switched to other publishers. The final move, from the University of Chicago Press to the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, enabled him to offer the last volumes at prices of one-third those that Chicago had projected. Gans’s constant attention to seemingly small details has made this series much more generally available, both to students and to the more than 750 libraries worldwide that have subscribed to it.

This project required 17 years to complete.
I must also make a special comment about Ernest (Ernie) Liner, who has produced numerous utilitarian indexes to the herpetological literature. In this volume, however, his special skills have reached a new level. This project required 17 years to complete and it was a great deal more than just merging the reference lists or the indexes from the 21 text volumes. Consider that five different publishers on two continents produced these volumes, each with its own style of citation and indexing, and over a 42-year period during which terminology inevitably changed. Consider also that among the 22,652 references, many had been cited incompletely, incorrectly, or in different ways by different authors, but the correct form had to be provided in this final volume. Ernie admirably accomplished all this and much more. The result is the most extensive bibliography of the Reptilia ever compiled in book form that has reference value even as a stand-alone volume.