A journey through time and place in search of a snake
How was the Australian Keelback snake (Tropidonophis mairii) named? A historical investigation has led to the identification of where the snake came from – but with a twist.
Modern taxonomic research, the science of naming species, often works with recently collected specimens for which the localities are precise (sometimes down to a few square metres). However, many of the species named in the early nineteenth century (in the earliest days of the scientific discovery of Australian fauna) were named using specimens now lost, from localities as expansive as just “Australia,” and accompanied by brief descriptions that aren’t of use in distinguishing the species from other similar ones. In such cases, it can be difficult to definitively link a name to a specific population or locality. This creates problems when deciding which of a group of closely related species already has a name, and which are new to science.
One such case is the Australian keelback snake (Tropidonophis mairii), the only Australian species of a large group of semiaquatic non-venomous snakes (the natricine snakes). The species is found in association with the rivers and floodplains of northern Australia, from the Kimberley to far north-eastern NSW, but there are also many closely related species in New Guinea.
The scientific name of the Australian keelback snake was originally coined by the British zoologist John Edward Gray in 1841, applied to a specimen in the Museum of the Army Medical Service in Chatham, England. As was typical for Gray, the description was very limited and the features described for the species didn’t clearly differentiate the species from any other in the genus, including those now known from nearby New Guinea. The locality given was just “Australia” and the specimen, obtained by a Dr John Mair, is now lost (the remnants of the Chatham collection were dispersed in the 1860’s when the British Army moved the training hospital for its medical staff to Netley).
In order to find out more about the species, we need to ask who was John Mair? How and from where did he get the snake that now bears his name? Was it even definitely from Australia?
A large amount of historical sleuthing was needed to track down Mair and his activities. John Mair arrived in Sydney in 1828 as an army surgeon with the 39th Regiment. Over the following five years, he became a significant figure in the medical history of Australia – associated with the fight against smallpox, Mair worked in both the military and civilian hospital systems. During this time, he was confined to the Sydney region where his movements went no further inland than Bathurst and no further north than Port Macquarie (even the evidence for that is limited). Mair then spent several years at military stations in the Mediterranean but was sent back to Australia in 1842 to help with Hobart Hospital. Mair left Australia for the second time in 1843 and spent the rest of his life in Canada around Kingston, Ontario, where he died in 1877. In this later phase of his life, he became a fervent supporter of the Christian Temperance movement; Mair wrote a 300 page book (Nephaleia) in support of the movement, in addition to writing numerous letters to Temperance journals and newspapers, combining biblical quotes with his studies of the pathological effects of alcohol on the body to make his case. At no time prior to the description of the snake bearing his name did he venture within the distribution of that species, or any other Tropidonophis species.
So how did he obtain the specimen? It was his link with the 39th Regiment that provided the solution to this problem. The regiment sent officers from Sydney to support other colonies. Among these was Captain Collet Barker, who was sent as commandant to Fort Wellington. This was a short-lived settlement on Raffles Bay in the Top End of the Northern Territory, within the distribution of the Keelback. Following Raffles Bay, Barker went to Perth and finally Albany, appointed commandant of that settlement. These three localities uniquely match three other snakes that John Gray had also ascribed to Mair. Barker is known to have had a particular interest in snakes, providing descriptions of them in his diary. Barker was recalled to Sydney in 1831, with instructions to explore the mouth of the Murray River en route, but it was there that he was killed. With his personal effects being carried to Sydney by the same ship, it is likely that any preserved natural history specimens in his possession would have been brought back to his regiment and passed on to Dr Mair. Mair would have taken the specimens back to England on his return in 1833 and passed them on to the Museum of the Army Medical Service.
While this resolves the issue of the locality from which the Keelback Snake was collected (Fort Wellington in the Northern Territory), it is a bittersweet discovery. Collet Barker, who had an interest in snakes and who collected the Keelback, received no recognition for his work on Australia’s snakes until now. However, John Mair, who was merely the conduit for the snake’s transport to England, received the lasting kudos of a snake being named after him.
Dr Glenn Shea, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Anatomy, University of Sydney; and Research Associate, Herpetology, Australian Museum Research Institute
- Shea, G. M. (2021). Dr. John Mair, Captain Collet Barker, and the discovery of the Australian Keelback, Tropidonophis mairii (Serpentes, Colubridae). Bibliotheca Herpetologica 15(3):18–28.