Laurence M. Klauber: The Rattlesnake Whisperer

Periodically the world welcomes into its midst a personality larger than life, an individual who seems to be able to achieve, in one lifetime, what would take three people to normally create. Such a person was Laurence M. Klauber, born in 1883, who was a San Diego engineer, polymath, CEO, mathematician, inventor, poetry buff, bibliophile, and consummate citizen scientist.

Although educated as an engineer, Klauber was completely self-taught as a herpetologist and remains one of the world’s authorities on snakes today, and probably THE world authority on rattlesnakes. His two-volume Magnum Opus titled Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories and Influence on Mankind, is still the herpetologist’s bible for any and everything you ever needed or wanted to know about rattlesnakes, including their biology, reproduction, systematics, physiology, and geographic distribution as well as cultural and mythological significance throughout history.

The Klauber Herpetological Library came to the San Diego Natural History Museum in 1968 and forms the nucleus of our rare book collection. Klauber had purchased a great number of valuable antiquarian works on natural history and herpetology over his lifetime, many of which he used for his research in preparation for publication of the Rattlesnakes volumes in 1956. He also donated his entire preserved rattlesnake collection, now housed below decks in our Herpetology Department’s basement storage area. It is comprised of more than 9,300 specimens, most likely the largest in the world.

These achievements are all the more remarkable when we consider that Klauber never received any formal training in herpetology, but because of his very focused interest in the topic took it upon himself to research every aspect he could, often before putting in a full day’s work as the CEO at San Diego Gas and Electric. Nights and weekends he often spent either collecting snakes, working in his basement laboratory, writing and reading research materials, or carrying on active correspondence with other herpetologists and reptile enthusiasts all over the world. Long before the advent of the use of computers, he used statistical analysis and mathematical methods to solve complex questions of classification of various species of snakes.

Klauber died in 1968, but were he alive today he would be particularly interested in the current binational project sponsored by our Curator of Herpetology Dr. Brad Hollingsworth, entitled the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California, otherwise known as the “Herp Atlas.” The atlas data presented includes not only The Nat’s own 76,000+ herpetology collection specimens, but also the data that citizen scientists provide via iNaturalist. The Herp Atlas project leverages the amazing scope and reach of today’s digital technology to enable citizen scientists at large to document various herpetological species throughout our study area of Southern California and Baja California. Naturalists and scientists who are interested in lizards, snakes, and turtles can submit photos through the portal and learn more about the biology of these animals.

We are certain that Klauber would barely be able to contain his excitement about this project, and the groundwork he laid with his own work enables us at The Nat to literally “stand on the shoulders of giants!” 

Posted by Director of the Research Library and Curator of Extraordinary Ideas Margaret Dykens.

Subscribe to our blog. Receive an email once a week that recaps the latest blog posts about our research, exhibitions, cool science news, and more