Foreword: Carl Gans and Biology of the Reptilia

A Biographical Appreciation

By Harry W. Greene, Ithaca, New York, December 2009

Carl Gans died after a long illness late in 2009, barely missing completion of this monumental project. Biology of the Reptilia is indeed physically impressive, its 22 installments occupying nearly one meter of shelf space and encompassing 142 chapters by 169 authors over a period of four decades. Gans himself was arguably the most prolific and influential of all twentieth century herpetologists, as well as a founding father of functional and evolutionary morphology. These volumes have spanned my own academic career, and having had the good fortune to contribute a chapter as well as profit from them countless times, I here provide a brief personal appraisal of the series and its remarkable senior editor.

Gans himself was arguably the most prolific and influential of all twentieth century herpetologists.

Biology of the Reptilia was explicitly conceived in the early 1960s as a means of rectifying two related problems—the relative obscurity of turtles, crocodilians, and lepidosaurs in comparative biology, and the rapidly burgeoning literature on those animals. From the start diversity itself was emphasized, with the goal of countering notions of “the turtle,” let alone “the reptile.” Scholarly synthesis would be achieved by enlisting experts, with teams of coauthors when deemed necessary; chapters would be collected in volumes that juxtaposed organ systems or otherwise associated topics. Because morphology is the basis for other aspects of organismal biology, volumes devoted to form would generally precede those concerning function and ecology. From its opening statement of goals this was an ambitious undertaking!

Reviews of viviparity and parental care, have spawned many subsequent research projects.
The series was initially brought out by Academic Press, then successively published by John Wiley and Sons, Alan R. Liss Associates, University of Chicago Press, and finally the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Individual chapters usually were not conceptually focused and the early morphological reviews were mostly descriptive, though their findings were typically placed in a taxonomic context. The physiological and ecological chapters by contrast often set forth theoretical problems and original analyses, and perhaps they are thus far more widely cited and influential. Some of them, such as reviews of viviparity and parental care, have spawned many subsequent research projects; others await the novel perspectives that will one day make the pancreas and spleen objects of exciting discovery.

His library of some 20,000 titles and correspondence
What kind of person could pull off something like this in an era of diminished emphasis on organisms in biology? Carl Gans was born in Germany, immigrated to New York City in 1939, and served with the United States Army in the Philippines and Japan from 1944 to 1946. He received a bachelor’s degree from New York University and a master’s from Columbia University, both in mechanical engineering, then a doctorate in biology from Harvard University in 1957. His dissertation was a comprehensive evolutionary analysis of African egg-eating snakes, encompassing geographic variation, feeding mechanics, and mimicry. Carl worked in private industry and studied Brazilian reptiles as a Guggenheim Fellow, then was professor and department chair at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1958 to 1971 and at the University of Michigan until his retirement in 1998. Thereafter he was adjunct professor at the University of Texas, Austin. His library of some 20,000 titles and correspondence are now housed at Ben Gurion University in Israel, and his specimen collections are deposited primarily in the Field Museum of Natural History, California Academy of Sciences, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

Carl was extraordinarily prolific, authoring more than 600 publications.
Biographical nuts and bolts scarcely convey the accomplishments of this remarkable man. Carl was extraordinarily prolific, authoring more than 600 publications that ranged from letters to the editor and short natural history notes to systematic monographs, comparative anatomy lab manuals, and popular nature guides. He was exceptionally broad conceptually, as illustrated by publications in Science, Nature, Ecology, Animal Behaviour, Evolution, and other high-profile international jour- nals. His technical expertise was equally innovative and comprehensive, encompassing fieldwork (he followed road crews and farmers to collect burrowing vertebrates) and sophisticated lab analyses (e.g., high speed films, electromyography). Through it all Carl was especially interested in morphology, and he wrote seminal theoretical papers on mechanical versus functional units and the significance of pinnate muscle architecture as well as conducted biomechanical investigations of locomotion, respiration, and feeding.

Carl’s research heavily emphasized amphibians and reptiles.
Carl’s research heavily emphasized amphibians and reptiles, but he also published on chewing in goats and bats, development of neural crest tissue and its significance in chordate evolution, and the role of zoos in research and education. Within herpetology his specialty was above all amphisbaenians, a group of previously obscure burrowers that he “put on the map” with dozens of systematic revisions and investigations of functional morphology—but he also studied the digestive physiology of crocodilians, breathing in turtles, jaw mechanics of Sphenodon, and many aspects of snake biology, especially locomotion in the highly fossorial uropeltids.

His extensive professional travels were global, enhancing a first-hand taxonomic breadth rarely matched by others.
The scope of Biology of the Reptilia reflects Carl’s unusual background and energetic, overtly driven personality. His extensive professional travels were global, enhancing a first-hand taxonomic breadth rarely matched by others and resulting in a representation of non-U.S. authors in the series that was far ahead of the times. He obsessively strived for quality at every turn. Each volume had at least one co-editor—14 over the course of the series—and the choice of those collaborators and the chapter authors was highly strategic, designed to insure exhaustive, thought-provoking reviews. He often sought confidential advice regarding the expertise and work habits of prospective contributors, played an active role in the development of their manuscripts, and insisted on extensive, critical peer review.

A highly skilled editor with a fine eye for writing, Carl could be blunt when lessons weren’t quickly absorbed—I was forcefully told on the second go-round of my review of antipredator mechanisms to whenever possible make organisms and research findings, rather than authors of papers, the subjects of sentences. Despite that sort of perfectionism, however, one didn’t have to agree with Carl—he’d propose counter arguments and then if an author stuck to a position and defended it, as with my heavily phylogenetic approach to adaptation, that was fine. Perhaps the most dramatic example of his sense of fairness to opposing views was presentation in successive volumes of two enormous and very different reviews of snake skulls!

What of the future of the series, its place in herpetology and science more generally? Twenty-first century biologists are poised to truly unify our disciplines as the remarkable technological innovations of molecular biology are brought fully to bear on problems that have fascinated naturalists for centuries. Organisms and their environments will always be the integrative locus of that synthesis, and reptiles are now widely recognized as appropriate models at every level of analysis. Fossil snakes figure prominently in textbooks about development and evolution, for example, and the anole genome is being sequenced. Biology of the Reptilia is thus a work of immense, truly timeless value and a lasting tribute to the vision, scholarship, and energy of its founding editor.