Amphibians & Reptiles

Amphibians & Reptiles

With more than 95,000 specimens, the Division of Amphibians & Reptiles has steadily grown to become one of the largest herpetological collections in the western US. Personnel and associates conduct research in the American Southwest and throughout Latin America. The division is the primary repository of specimens for the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish.



Division of Arthropods maintains collections of specimens gathered worldwide. These serve as the basis for discovery of new species and systematic studies of amazing diversity. More than 350 families and 2,300 species are represented in this rapidly growing arthropod collection.



The Division of Birds contains more than 40,000 specimens, which represent all bird orders and 85 percent of bird families. The collection contains historic specimens of threatened, endangered, and extinct species such as the passenger pigeon. The largest holdings are from the American Southwest, Peru, and South America.



The Division of Fishes has 95,000 cataloged lots of fishes - more than 4 million individual specimens. Collections of eggs, larvae, and adults aid in the study of the specialized ecology of desert fishes. The division is the primary repository for academic and agency biologists in New Mexico.

Genomic Resources

Genomic Resources

The Division of Genomic Resources (DGR) maintains more than 460,000 archived tissue samples and nucleic acids from over 200,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. The DGR collection is global in scope, representing taxa from over 30 countries. Our mission is to maintain a permanent reference archive of frozen tissues and DNA to aid in understanding the complexity of biological diversity and to address critical biological problems such as emerging pathogens, habitat degradation, pollution, climate change, and invasive species.



The herbarium houses 130,000 plant specimens dating back to the 1800s. The collection primarily contains vascular plants, but it also contains lichen, mosses, and fungi. The herbarium also has a library, reprint collection, and a laboratory for cytogenetics.



With more than 300,000 specimens, this division is among the world's three largest mammal collections. Specimens represent more than 1,700 species from localities all over the world, with especially large holdings from Panama, Bolivia, Siberia, Mongolia, Alaska, Canada, and the American Southwest.



The Division of Parasitology holds the third largest collection of parasites in North America. There are nearly 30,000 cataloged parasites, including a growing schistosome archive. This collection is unique in that most parasites are tied directly to the host specimen, allowing powerful integrated views of coevolution.

Natural Heritage New Mexico

Natural Heritage New Mexico

Natural Heritage New Mexico (NHNM) does research on the conservation and sustainable management of New Mexico's biodiversity. We have New Mexico's only state-wide rare species and ecosystems database (NM Biotics) which helps shape conservation efforts. NHNM does biology research and education in the context of conservation and climate change.

Museum of Southwestern Biology

The Museum of Southwestern Biology is a research and teaching facility in the Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico.

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Museum of Southwestern Biology
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131

University of New Mexico
302 Yale Blvd NE
CERIA 83, Room 204
Albuquerque, NM, USA 87131

Catching Lizards on Western Indian Ocean Islands with PhD Student Kathleen Webster

Comoros Archipelago Summer 2022

By Breanna Kappel

Off the southeastern coast of Africa, between Mozambique and Madagascar, sits a chain of volcanic islands called the Comoros Archipelago. These islands are home to thirty-five species of amphibians and reptiles and for five weeks this past summer, were the destination of a field expedition for Kathleen Webster’s dissertation research. Kathleen is a UNM PhD Student and graduate assistant for the Museum of Southwestern Biology who specializes in ecology, evolution, and conservation of herpetofauna on islands.

The four main islands of the Comoros Archipelago: Grand Comoro, Mohéli, Anjouan, and Mayotte, plus nearby Réunion Island, have a tropical maritime climate with distinct wet and dry seasons. The landscape is varied, from coasts of black volcanic rock to plantations of banana and ylang-ylang (an aromatic flower used in perfume), to unmarred montane tropical humid forests full of endemic plant species. Across these unique islands, twenty endemic and four native species of amphibians and reptiles can be found, along with eleven introduced, non-native species.

These interactions between native and invasive herpetofauna and the ever-changing environments they inhabit form the basis of study for Kathleen and her field crew, Sohan Sauroy-Toucouère and Youssouf Mohamed.

This work with the Comoros herpetofauna is a continuation of Kathleen’s research done during her masters studies at Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich and will be the basis of her PhD dissertation work here at UNM. This go around, there are two very special lizards in the spotlight of Kathleen’s PhD research: the native Comoros Iguana (Oplurus cuvieri comorensis) and the introduced and quickly spreading Peter’s Rock Agama (Agama cf. picticauda).

Comoros-Field Crew
Kathleen Webster (left) with field crew Youssouf Mohamed (center) and Sohan Sauroy-Toucouère (right). Photo by K.Webster.

Florebo quocumque ferar, I will flourish wherever I am brought. This is the national motto of the island of Réunion. Fitting for Agamas as well, which arrived on Réunion in 1995 and have spread across the

densely populated island like wildfire. The same is true for Grand Comoro, where agamas were introduced and established around the same time.

Agamas can lay up to three clutches of eggs a year, as many as five eggs at a time. They are excellent dispersers and incredibly adaptable, especially to urban environments. They are generalist feeders, eating nearly anything they can fit in their mouths, including each other on occasion. All these qualities make them the ideal invader and a potentially formidable threat to the native fauna in their introduced range. As visual hunters, they are incredibly hard to catch, able to react to human facial expressions and dart away erratically.

This was the battle of this summer—catching these hyper-vigilant Agamas. The goal here was to survey for and capture Agamas in order to monitor their spread and to collect tissues for use in a comparative study of genetic structure between the Agama’s invasive range, which also includes Cape Verde and southern Florida, and their native range of West Africa. Fecal and tissue samples will also be used to investigate potential dietary differences between native and introduced populations.

To date, 41 Agamas have been collected and processed, 31 from Grand Comoro and 13 from Réunion. Tissues, blood smears, endoparasites, and fecal samples have been deposited at the Museum of Southwestern Biology to be tested further.

Comoros-Fishing for agamas
Kathleen demonstrating the method for catching the elusive agamas—a small lasso on the end of a long fishing pole. Photo by O. Hawlitschek.

Where Agamas are incredible for their ability to adapt and thrive, Comoros Iguanas are famous for their extremely small range and population size. The Comoros Iguanas are medium-sized lizards belonging to the family Opluridae, which are known as the Madagascan Iguanas and are endemic to Madagascar and Grand Comoro. Reaching a maximum body size of approximately 150 mm, these charismatic lizards are easily recognizable as they spend their days basking on volcanic rock, showing off their dark coloration with light speckling, pale stomachs and spiny tails.

Sampling for Iguanas required a different set of techniques, owing to their small population size and their rather inconvenient tendency to live on coastal cliff faces, barely accessible by foot. Those caught had tissue samples collected, were checked for ectoparasites and, in the effort to collect all data possible, underwent a “poop massage” so fecal matter could be collected without harming them.

Before release, each iguana was heavily photographed, marked with an identifying number using a non-toxic paint marker, and permanently tagged with a passive integrated transponder (PIT tag) to allow individuals to be identified upon future recapture and estimates of population size to be calculated. This mark-recapture program is the first of its kind for Comoros Iguanas and is an essential first step in learning more about these rare lizards with the ultimate goal to more accurately inform conservation management efforts for the imperiled endemic subspecies.

Comoros-Comoros Iguana 
The second Comoros Iguana captured, named Jojo, poses for a glamour shot before being rereleased.
Photo by K. Webster.

While Agamas have not been confirmed to overlap in range with Comoro Iguanas yet, data collected from both these sampling efforts on Grand Comoro will allow Kathleen and her collaborators to model and quantify dietary and climatic niche overlap between the native and introduced lizards. This project will help predict whether or not the spread and potential competitive overlap of Agamas may affect the Iguanas of Grand Comoro, already so precariously balanced on the edge.

By the end of the expedition, six iguanas had been captured and released from the team’s first field site of Dos du Dragon—the Dragon’s Back—on Grand Comoro. In addition to their field collector number, each iguana was given a name, five after the parents of the field crew. The sixth iguana, too small to safely PIT-tag (although marked and sampled), was named JoJo, not by Kathleen, but by a class of elementary school students in Germany.

Comoros-Dragons Back Grand Comoros
The protruding volcanic rock ridge of Dos du Dragon, The Dragon’s Back, is one of the most scenic natural wonders on Grand Comoro and the home of the Comoros Iguana. Field surveying here is done by sticking close to the rocks and scanning for lizard heads to stickout from the stone. Photo by K. Webster.

Outreach and community involvement were built into this summer’s trip from the start. Kathleen worked closely with a class of fifth grade aged students in Germany to both introduce them to her work as a scientist and help them practice their English skills. She taught them basic principles of herpetology over the course of two recorded and online class events. Sohan, a native French speaker, led outreach events on Grand Comoro and Mohéli not only to teach field herpetology skills to local scientists but also to teach local communities in the Comoros the importance of herpetofauna conservation. Agamas have been known to travel by human activity, specifically the transport of cinderblocks used in building construction, so community education about their environmental impact may be the best defense against their spread. The field crew even landed a spot on the national news, discussing their work and how it would be impacting local communities

Comoros-Sohan training park rangers
Sohan gives a practical training session on field data collection skills to a group of rangers and ecogaurds working for
Parc National de Mohéli in Mohéli, Comoros.Photo by K. WebsterCaption

From here, the work continues. In Réunion, Sohan is the biodiversity project manager for the town of La Possession, where he works to restore natural sites with endemic plants and continues to fight invasive herpetofauna species including the Agama. In the Comoros, Youssouf, who is a biologist and local naturalist, is continuing his training to become a leader in herpetological research for the archipelago. Both are talented field herpetologists who were integral to the success of this summer’s expedition, and Kathleen looks forward to her continued collaboration with them.

Drawing on new and pre-existing tissues from museum specimens, Kathleen plans to continue Agama sampling efforts across their invasive range of Cape Verde and south Florida, as well as their native range of West Africa, to establish comparative datasets. Now, analysis of collected data and samples begins here at the Museum of Southwestern Biology, where Kathleen will continue applying for funding for future expeditions.

Learn more about the MSB Division of Amphibians and Reptiles and our work: visit our website or follow us on Twitter / Instagram / TikTok. If you would like to help facilitate future student research opportunities and division activities, you can donate directly to The Division of Amphibians and Reptiles here.

Field research in the Comoros was conducted in collaboration with the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change under permits issued from the following authorities: Yahaya Ibrahim at the Centre National de Documentation et de Recherche Scientifique in Moroni, Grand Comoro and Ben Anthoy Moussa at the Parc National de Mohéli in Fomboni, Mohéli. Field methods

implemented in this expedition were designed to minimize stress to the animals under the approved IACUC protocol #22-201298-MC.


For a general background on our museum, please watch our introduction video here 


Staff, curators, students, volunteers, and research associates are working from home as much as possible on digital data curation, data analyses, scientific manuscripts, and grant proposals. New Mexico based field-work is proceeding, while following all appropriate safety guidelines to prevent transmission of SARS CoV-2. 
Many exciting publications by our personnel or based on our collections are coming out. Check out the latest ones here:


Latest MSB Division of Mammals Publications

Latest MSB Division of Birds Publications  

Latest MSB Division of Amphibians & Reptiles Publications  

Latest MSB Division of Fishes Publications


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