top of page

David Wake

Dave Wake played a tremendous role in my professional career. We first corresponded when I was working at the Field Museum of Natural History updating the taxonomy of the plethodontid salamander collection in the late 1990's. I originally contacted him about a specimen purportedly collected in Cuatalapan that did not match any known species from that area. The specimen turned out to be a Batrachoseps that had somehow been disassociated from it's collection data. I am sharing his response which demonstrates the kindness and encouragement he offered to people at the very beginning of their careers and it also illustrates his endless passion for salamanders.

Wake, Beamer, and Bonett.5-20-14.642.JPG

Dear Dave: Thank you for your interesting and entertaining note! I am delighted to know another plethodontid enthusiast.

First, Cuautlapan. To my knowledge Taylor was never here but Smith was, and I have visited the village many times. It is not obscure when one is in the area, and is on standard Mexican maps, but it tends to get covered over by the size of neighboring towns - Orizaba, Fortin de las Flores and Cordoba. The village is the site of a huge sugar cane mill located just south of the main highway between Orizaba and Fortin, which in turn lies about 2 km south of the freeway between Orizaba and Cordoba. The elevation is just about 1000 m, but it is hilly terrain. The village contains a family by the name of Ceron which has worked with herpetologists since the 1930's. Carlos Ceron, the eldest at about 76, was in the field with my graduate student Gabriela Parra as recently as July of this year. There is a small volcanic peak, Cerro Chicahuaxtla, about 1.5 km se of the rather rambling village. At the base of the Cerro, which is located in a tropical wet forest region now mainly converted to other uses, one finds

Thorius pennatulus, Bolitoglossa rufescens, Bolitoglossa platydactyla, and Lineatriton lineola. There is also a limestone outcrop where Xenosaurus is abundant. It is usually hot and humid here, but less hot than in Cordoba. A little elevation is important in these areas. Climbing the Cerro one enters a remnant of a cloud forest and comes on to some bromeliads. On the

ground in this area one finds Parvimolge townsendi, and in the bromeliads Pseudoeurycea nigromaculata. In the past all salamanders were abundant, especially Thorius and B. rufescens, but they are no longer common or even obtainable. We failed to get Thorius in two trips in 1997-98. It is difficult to work in Mexico because collecting permits are so difficult to obtain. Gabriela is Mexican, which has eased her problems considerably.

Chiropterotriton is pretty well known from the places you mention. I have found them in both areas. They go very high on Popo and they are not at all restricted to bromeliads. They are often found under the bark of logs, or even on the ground in situations somewhat like Plethodon cinereus.

I guess the Oedipina that Taylor mentions are actually Lineatriton.

Count the costal grooves. If 14 it is Lineatriton, 18 or more Oedipina. Lineatriton was called Oedipina until 1950. I would be truly shocked if anything new turned up in Cuautlapan, given the amount of work that has been devoted to the region.

As to the Thorius, I have no recollection, but Hanken and I have, I

believe, looked at all the Thorius in the Field Museum and I think we identified them. Can you give me the number and exact locality?

I long have been interested in what might be the most diverse site

for salamanders. Dick Bruce in NC and I engaged in something of a contest. Of course it depends on the dimensions of the site, but Dick claims that an area near Grandfather Mountain , NC is the record holder (I think he has more than 20 species). I recorded 23 species from a long transect in Costa Rica, but as far as I know the record number for a given site (that is, no

elevational relief) in the tropics is about 7.

I was in Vietnam last year and saw lots of Paramesotriton

deloustali. It is big! However, I do not discount that what you have may well be very interesting. I know of several groups that have been working in Laos. Some Russian colleagues have collected at least two salamanders near the Laos border in Vietnam. One of my students, Shawn Kuchta, is strongly interested in Asian salamandrids (he is picking up the Taricha work of An-Ming Tan).

The last paragraph in his reply is in reference to me telling him about some salamanders that had just been received at the FMNH that would eventually be recognized as Laotriton. Later I sent images taken with a device called a Snappy! that captured frames from a video camera. Image files were pretty big to be sending via email at that time and I remember Dave telling me they were "clogging up his computer" and that they never were viewable and to please not send anymore! I converted them to another format and asked to try one more time to which he agreed. When  he saw the photos he replied "Thanks for the pics.  I agree that this is probably an unknown
". It was definitely an exciting moment for a fledgling biologist to get confirmation from the world's salamander expert that the specimens did likely represent a species new to science.

We first met in person in May 2000 when he visited University of Chicago and gave a seminar. He talked about some of the latest work with neotropical plethodontids from his lab and when he asked for questions I inquired about some of the phylogenetic trees in which I had noticed two species of Ixalotriton and Lineatriton. He said I had a sharp eye and explained that indeed there were more species in those genera (they had been considered monotypic). After the seminar I was showing Andy Crawford a polylpoid Ambystoma from one of my research sites and Dave came over to see what we were looking at. I asked him what he thought about the salamander and he was a little perplexed. I pointed out the large body size and metallic iris indicated that this polyploid clearly had incorporated A. tigrinum genes. At this point we had never met in person and he asked my name and after I told him he said "Of course" which really made my day!

I offered to show him some of the specimens that we had corresponded about housed at the Field Museum of Natural History the following day. We spent a few hours the next day looking at some of the problem specimens in the collection and discussing whether they might be allocated to species with any certainty. In a followup email he said "It was nice to meet and talk with you, and I appreciate your showing me around the Museum and especially transporting me through the rush hour traffic."

The Chicago rush hour traffic he referred to turned out to be a positive for once because it allowed us even more time to talk and the subject turned to my difficulties in finding an appropriate graduate school program. By this time I realized that the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States was very understudied with respect to plethodontid salamanders and I had determined this would be a fruitful area of study. Of course this also meant there was no obvious place to go since there was not an active coastal plain salamander research program anywhere. After thinking about it for a while he suggested I contact Trip Lamb and tell him about my interests and see if we might be able to work together. This suggestion resulted in me ending up in Trip Lamb's lab at East Carolina University where I completed my masters and doctoral degrees. Later when I told Dave in an email that I had decided to focus on Desmognathus he replied "Desmognathus phylogeny!  You are brave.  From what I  have seen it is a very difficult group.".

He continued to offer support over the years and was always excited to hear about what I was finding. Here is an email exchange from last year:

Dear David:  Wonderful!  Realizing that Mirador was an exact place, rather then a random view spot, was key to finally figuring out what the real chiropterus was.  "Dr. Sartorius" was the source of many herps from Veracruz without exact localities.  Thanks to this picture, we now know that he founded Hacienda Mirador!  I am delighted and will share you message with my colleagues.  Thanks so much!  David


On Fri, May 29, 2020 at 7:25 PM David Beamer  wrote:


I was reading the recent Chiropterotriton paper which required me to brush up on some of the taxonomy issues. I was doing a little searching to learn more about Mirador and I ran across this old Christie's auction with an 1852 painting of the site which I thought I would share in case you had not seen it before. I wish there was a higher resolution image but it's nice to "see" the area.


F. Toifel (active 1852) Hacienda "Mirador", with a view of the Pico de Orizaba, Veracruz signed and dated 'F. Toifel.852' (lower left), inscribed 'Hacienda "Mirador" gegrndet von/[Carl Christian] Sartorius in Mexico. Lieblingsaufenthalt/des Naturforschers Prof. K.B. Heller (+1880)/Gemalt von F. Toifel 1852' on the backing board oil on canvas

86 x 116in. (20.5 x 28.5cm.)

In August 2007, the 5th Conference on the Biology of Plethodontid Salamanders was held in Chiapas in honor of David Wake's contributions. I shot a little clip during a night field trip that captures some of his passion and expertise with salamanders and his excitement to share this with others. I hope it brings back good memories and I hope others will share what Dave Wake meant to their lives.

David Wake, David Beamer & Ron Bonett 2014 Plethodontid Meeting

Taylor's Oedipina.jpg

Taylor's Cuautlapan "Oedipina"

Dorsal variation.jpg
Ventral variation.jpg

First Laotriton specimens accessioned at FMNH

Mirador near Veracruz.jpg

Hacienda Mirador

bottom of page