Herpetology Collection

History of the herpetological collections at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History

The collecting of lower vertebrates – fish, amphibians and reptiles – goes back to the earliest days of the then Transvaal Museum, with important contributions having been made by Mr G. van Dam, Dr J. Hewitt and Lord Methuen. It was with the appointment of Vivian FitzSimons in March 1924, however, that herpetology at the Transvaal Museum came into its own. For many years, Vivian FitzSimons was the Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum and the creator of the well-known Snake Park there.

Starting with an early interest in reptiles, FitzSimons took an M.Sc. degree at Rhodes University, and then set about his task at the Transvaal Museum of documenting the southern African reptile fauna with enthusiasm, taking part in numerous expeditions to remote areas. His researches on lizards led to a D.Sc. from the University of Witwatersrand being awarded in 1943, and his work was published four years later as Transvaal Museum Memoir No. 1 entitled Lizards of South Africa.

Following his appointment as Director of the Museum in 1946, Dr FitzSimons continued his researches on snakes and published a major volume in 1962, Snakes of Southern Africa, with 76 colour plates done by Rev. P. J. Smit. In 1957, Dr C. K. Brain was appointed Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates and had the privilege of assisting Dr FitzSimons with the latter stages of his snake book. His own research was on desert reptiles and chameleons, some of which he continued when he moved to take up the post of Keeper of Zoology at the then National Museum of Rhodesia in Salisbury (now Harare).

He was succeeded as herpetologist at the Transvaal Museum in June 1961 by Mr. W. D. Haacke, who was born in Windhoek in 1936 and whose research interest has been largely in the reptiles of the arid western region of southern Africa. His M.Sc. thesis, completed in 1969, was on the burrowing geckos of these parts and was subsequently published in five parts of the Annals of the Transvaal Museum during 1975 and 1976.

In the 31 years that Mr. Haacke has been Curator of Lower Vertebrates at the Museum, he has collected extensively in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, frequently assisted by Collection Manager Mrs Lomi Brown. They also undertook fieldwork in Australia. In 1986 Mr Haacke was appointed Assistant Director – a responsibility carried in addition to his curatorship of lower vertebrates. During the last few years, an extensive survey of the Transvaal Reptiles was undertaken by Dr N. H. G. Jacobsen of the Transvaal Directorate of Nature Conservation. The entire collection resulting from this survey, and running to over 10,000 specimens, was donated to the Lower Vertebrates Department of the Museum and was accessioned by Miss. S. Ritter. In recognition of this contribution, Dr Jacobsen was admitted as an Associate Member of the Museum in 1990, together with two other regular contributors of reptile specimens, Dr O. Bourquin and Mr G. Haagner. The Museum currently houses approximately 85,000 herpetological specimens, collected mainly from southern Africa but with some material from other African countries and abroad. The collection is currently curated by Mr P. L. Mashinini and consists of lizards, snakes, chelonians and amphibians.