When modern systematists are forced to rely on data and specimens originally gathered by some of the explorer naturalists of almost two centuries ago, they may be somewhat frustrated by the seemingly cavalier attitudes that such men displayed toward the now sacrosanct entities of type specimens and type localities.One of these early North American naturalists, Constantine S. Rafinesque, who plays prominently in this episode, has even been accused of eating the type specimens of certain fishes he would later describe – from notes – as new species.Considering the harsh conditions these pioneer-naturalists often labored under, however, it is remarkable that they were able to record, collect, and accomplish as much as they did.
Traditionally when modern reviewers encounter problems with the types and type localities of taxa described during this earlier period of North American herpetology, they attempt to narrow down (restrict) vague type localities and, should the type specimen itself be lost or missing, designate a new, replacement type specimen (neotype) collected from as near the original or newly restricted type locality as possible.
Enter Dr. Andrew Holycross of Arizona State University and his colleagues.For whatever reasons, these gentlemen were examining the three species of rattlesnakes described by the aforementioned C. S. Rafinesque in 1818.One of Rafinesque’s new species “from the barrens of Kentucky,” “Crotalinus cyanurus,” had been determined by previous workers to be the same (a junior synonym) as the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) and is of no further concern here.
The other two rattlesnakes described by Rafinesque, however, were indeed new to science at the time:“Crotalinus viridis” (now the Prairie Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis) and “Crotalinus catenatus” (now the Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus).The type specimens of both these species have long been lost or were never designated, and to make matters worse, the published type localities of both were exceptionally vague:“Crotalinus viridis” was merely said to be from “the Upper Missouri” while “Crotalinus catenatus” was from the “prairies of the Upper Missouri.”Additionally, the authors assert that Rafinesque apparently transposed even these vague localities in his original descriptions for the respective species, in that “prairies of the Upper Missouri” given for the Massasauga, would actually be more consistent with the habitat of the Prairie Rattlesnake, as would be “the Upper Missouri” for the Massasauga.
Resorting to details contained within the unpublished correspondence and published accounts of the travels of the actual collector of both specimens, John Bradbury, Holycross and his associates determined that Bradbury had collected the type of “Crotalinus viridis” in what is now North Dakota, outside the range of any other species of rattlesnake. Thus they were able to restrict the type locality of this form to “the prairies between the Cannonball and Heart rivers, within 40 km of the Missouri River in North Dakota.”
The type locality of “Crotalinus catenatus” was subsequently also restricted to “the floodplain of the Missouri River, between the mouth of the Platte River and Nebraska City, Nebraska.”Only one other species of rattlesnake (the Timber Rattler, Crotalus horridus) occurs at this locality, but the researchers were convinced that Rafinesque had actually been referring to the Massasauga in describing his “Crotalinus catenatus” from notes.Thus the confusion regarding the type localities of the Prairie Rattlesnake and the Massasauga was resolved.
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