The origins of herpetology in St. Petersburg can be traced to the time of Peter the Great when the first museum in Russia - called the Cabinet of Curiosities, or Kunstcamera - was founded in this capital of the Russian Empire. In 1717, Peter the Great personally purchased for the Kunstcamera the famous collection of Albertus Seba, a merchant in Amsterdam, including 120 amphibians and reptiles (the first Seba collection) which became the first specimens of our herpetological collection.

The Academy of Sciences was founded in 1724 and the Kunstcamera (together with its associated library) became its responsibility. This period was a time of exploration and description in herpetology. Many new collections were obtained by the first expeditions of the Academy of Sciences and by purchases abroad (including part of the second Seba collection, purchased at auction in 1752).

Among the first expeditions of interest to herpetologists was Peter S. Pallas's trip in 1768-1773 to eastern Russia and Siberia. One result of Pallas's great expedition was that a number of new amphibians and reptiles were described. Most of the collections (including amphibians and reptiles) were taken to the Crimea where he finished writing his classic book, «Zoographia Rosso-Asiatica». Unfortunately, most of his material is no longer available; some specimens later were transferred to the Zoologisches Museum der Humboldt-University in Berlin and the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

The further development of herpetological research is associated with the official recognition of the Zoological Museum as an independent Institution in 1832, whereas previously it was only a part of the Kunstcamera. The first museum director, Johann F. Brandt, was well known for his herpetological activity; he described some new species of Asian reptiles and enlarged the collection (from various expeditions within the Russian Empire and abroad, particularly from Baron Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff in Brazil; and through exchanges with other museums). Brandt and Alexander A. Strauch, who replaced him in the post of the museum director, both of whom were academicians, were founders of the Russian school of herpetology.

Alexander A. Strauch  Alexander M. Nikolsky  Jacques von Bedriaga  Sergius A. Chernov  Paul V. Terentjev

Alexander A. Strauch, Alexander M. Nikolsky, Jacques von Bedriaga, Sergius A. Chernov, Paul V. Terentjev

Alexander Strauch is an especially important figure in the history of Russian and, indeed, world herpetology. He had serious scientific communication with most of the leading herpetologists of the day and used these contacts to increase the herpetological collection through purchase and exchange with other museums. As a result of his own careful study, Strauch wrote several monographs and world synopses of turtles, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and salamanders. His review of the snake fauna of the Russian Empire (1873) and results of his identification and description of the amphibians and reptiles (1876) from Przewalski's first expedition to Central Asia are of especial value for Russian and world herpetology.

The Department of Herpetology was officially recognized as a separate administrative unit only in 1915 and until that time it was part of a combined division of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles in the Zoological Museum. The curator of this combined division during the period 1896-1903 was the widely known herpetologist Alexander M. Nikolsky. Nikolsky was the author of several important monographs, including synopses of the herpetofaunas of Turkestan (1899) and the Caucasus (1913), and the first comprehensive books on Russian amphibians and reptiles («Fauna of Russia and Adjacent Countries», in three volumes, 1915, 1916, 1918). Another important contribution of Nikolsky was the study and description of the rich herpetological materials collected in Iran by N. A. Zarudny, who was one of the first zoologists to study the diverse fauna of Near East.

Nikolsky's contemporary, the well-known herpetologist Jacques von Bedriaga, was informally associated with the Zoological Museum. His most famous and important contribution was a large monograph (in quarto and nearly 800 pages; 1898-1912) devoted to the study of the huge herpetological collections made by Przewalski and other Russian explorers during their Central Asian expeditions.

The Department of Herpetology became independent in 1915 and Sergius F. Tsarevsky was curator during 1915-1929; Tsarevsky published important works on the taxonomically complicated groups Eryx and Phrynocephalus.

After the museum's name was changed to the Zoological Institute in 1930, Sergius A. Chernov, a student of A. M. Nikolsky, was appointed curator of the Department of Herpetology, succeeding Tsarevsky. Chernov, who became the leading Soviet herpetologist during his curatorship (1930-1961), conducted extensive herpetological field work in the Transcaspian region (1932), the Caucasus (1937-1939), and in Tajikistan (1942-1944). The results were published as a series of articles and several monographs including regional synopsis of herpetofauna of Armenia (1937, 1939) and Tajikistan(1959). His most widely-known work was a book, «Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of the USSR», coauthored with Paul V. Terentjev (three editions in 1936, 1940, 1949) that was translated into English in 1965. During the last years of his life, Chernov studied the taxonomy of Palearctic snakes, focussing on craniological peculiarities.

Paul Terentjev, a prominent herpetologist and author of the world's first textbook of herpetology, worked in the Department of Herpetology during World War II and the German siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) together with Lyudmila N. Lebedinskaya, collection manager whose activity in Department lasts here untill 1978. Terentjev studied taxonomy and biogeography, mostly of the Anura, but also conducted ecological, biometric, and evolutionary research.

In 1962, Ilya S. Darevsky, a former student of Sergius A. Chernov, was appointed curator of the Department of Herpetology and, later, head of the Laboratory of Ornithology and Herpetology from 1976 to 1996. His research interests are associated with taxonomy, morphology, natural history, biogeography, and speciation in reptiles. Much of his research is devoted to the phenomenon of natural parthenogenesis and polyploidy in higher vertebrates, discovered by him in 1957 in a polymorphic group of Caucasian rock lizards related to Lacerta saxicola (Darevsky, 1967; English translation - 1978). This important discovery has stimulated similar research and made Darevsky a leader of this new branch of science that concentrates on the study of the hybridogenous origin and speciation of clonal species of reptiles. It was developed successfully by Darevsky and his department colleagues (Larissa Kupriyanova, Felix Danielyan), and partly in collaboration with herpetologists from the USA (Thomas Uzzell), Canada (Robert W. Murphy), and Austria (Josef Eiselt).

Staff of the Department of Herpetology

Staff of the Department of Herpetology, including doctoral students (November 1957).

Left to right (seated): Sergius A. Chernov, Paul V. Terentjev, Leo I. Khosatzky;
(standing) Kirill B. Juriev (Ph. D. Student), Ilya S. Darevsky (postdoctoral fellow), Lyudmila N. Lebedinskaya (collection manager),
Gunther Peters (Ph. D. student from Berlin), Abdulla M. Alekperov (Ph. D. student from Baku).

Last modified: 25 May 2015            © Department of Herpetology, Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2005-15