The latest edition of Peter Uetz’s Reptile Database has just been released, adding 80 new species to the group, pushing Reptilia over 11,000 species strong. Along with this comes the phenomenal realization that Reptilia may actually be the most speciose group of tetrapods alive today.
As Uetz wrote on his update:
According to eBird, there are 10,721 bird species worldwide although these numbers vary depending on the source (see global bird checklists available from Avibase). Based on that, there are now more reptile species than bird species.
That is pretty huge. As I mentioned some five years ago, Reptilia has traditionally been viewed as being more speciose than mammals, but still way below birds. These new results suggests that reptile species are at least on par with those of birds, if not beyond them. Interestingly, this time around much of that increase in species was due to new discoveries, rather than the elevation of subspecies. There are still so many new species to discover in this group.
According to Uetz:
However, birds still have way more subspecies than reptiles, namely 17,991 subspecies of birds while reptiles have only 2,310 subspecies (or 3,304 if you include nominate subspecies). In general, ornithologists seem to like subspecies more than herpetologists, so there appear to be cultural preferences at play.
This is definitely a change of pace from previous decades where lumping and a reluctance to nominate new species, kept reptilian species counts way down. It appears that many of the lumpers from previous eras, have since been replaced in herpetology, or they moved over to ornithology. Which is not to say that there’s still not a problem with lumping in herpetology.
An exact breakdown of species by higher taxonomic level is currently unavailable, but a comparison to the data from July 2018, with data from my last entry on this is still plenty telling:
- Amphisbaenia = 196 (+8)
- Lacertilia = 6512 (+525)
- Serpentes = 3709 (+213)
- Chelonia = 351 (+10)
- Crocodylia = 24 (-1)
- Sphenodontia = 1 (+0)
Without a doubt, Squamata is the reason for this huge increase in year-by-year numbers. This is not that surprising given that Squamata has always been viewed as the most speciose group of reptiles. The small size of many squamates makes them easy to overlook, whereas the large size of most turtles and all crocodylians, makes them relatively easy to find (that said, expect Crocodylia to surge up by at least three species in the near future). Even within Squamata, lizard species outpace snakes nearly two-fold in both total described species and new species discovered. Again, the larger size of snakes relative to lizards is likely responsible for this. Smaller animals just tend to get more overlooked.
I suspect that as the years go on, we will continue to see Reptilia grow in species number at an accelerated pace compared to mammals and birds. This group has been overlooked for so long, that much of these results are happening because people have finally bothered to start looking. The big question now is when will this accelerated pace start slowing down?
Only time will tell.