S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Boulenger, Dr George Albert (vertebrate zoology)

Born: 9 October 1858, Brussels, Belgium.
Died: 23 November 1937, St-Malo, France.

George A. Boulenger, Belgian-British zoologist, was educated at the University of Brussels. While still a student he was appointed as assistant naturalist to the staff of the Musee d'Histoire Naturalle in Brussels in 1880. Two years later he joined the Department of Zoology of the British Museum and was appointed a first class assistant that same year, a position he held until his retirement in 1920. He was for many years in charge of the collection of reptiles and was the leading herpetologist of his time. A prolific author, he published over 900 scientific papers. His work lay entirely in the study of the taxonomy of amphibia, reptiles and fishes, and in related subjects such as geographical distribution. His monumental multi-volume Catalogues of the batrachian (1882), lizard (1885-1887), chelonian (1889) and snake (1893-1896) collections of the British Museum were the most detailed overview of world herpetology. In a paper in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1884), and in his Catalogue of lizards in the British Museum (1885), he introduced a considerably modified classification of the lizards, based mainly on skeletal characteristics. His study of the fauna of Lake Tanganyika and the Congo River showed that a surprising number of allied but distinct species of the same genus of fresh-water fishes often occur in the same river or lake. His Catalogue of the fresh water fishes of Africa in the British Museum (Natural History), was published in four volumes from 1909 to 1916. Around the turn of the century he studied the world distribution of amphibians, recognizing various zones and regions. Later in his career he also undertook some generic revisions. Most of his work was published in English, but he wrote several of his papers in French. He was an outstanding taxonomist, with an amazing memory and a detailed knowledge of the lower vertebrates.

Boulenger made many contributions to knowledge of the zoology of southern Africa, including the description of 40 new species or subspecies of reptiles and 15 of amphibians. He identified most of the herpetological specimens from southern Africa and published on them between 1880 and 1921. In 1898 he described two new marine fish species that had been collected by J.D.F. Gilchrist*, in the Report of the Marine Biologist (Cape of Good Hope) and named one of them after the collector. His brief review of "The flat fishes of the Cape Colony" was included in the first volume of Marine Investigatins in South Africa (1902), published by the Department of Agriculture of the Cape of Good Hope. Only five local species of flat fishes were known at the time, to which he could add a description of a sixth collected by Gilchrist. Several more papers in which he described new species of South African fishes were included in this and the next volume.

In 1899 he described a new genus of perciform fishes (perches and allied families) from the Cape in the Annals of the South African Museum (Vol. 1, Part 2). His other contributions to these Annals included a description of a new silurid fish from South Africa (Vol. 2(7), 1901), a description of six new perciform fishes from the coast of Natal (Vol. 3(3), 1903), "A revised list of the South African reptiles and batrachians ... and descriptions of new species" (Vol. 5(9), 1910), and a revision of the lizards of the genus Nucras (Vol. 13(6), 1917). He also described a collection of fresh-water fishes, batrachians and reptiles from Natal and Zululand, including new species, in the Annals of the Natal Museum (1908, Vol. 1(3), pp. 219-236). To the Annals of the Durban Museum he contributed descriptions of a new species of Barbus from Zululand (1914-1917, Vol. 1, p. 171) and a new Silurid fish from Natal (Vol. 1, p. 432). His papers in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London included a list of fishes, batrachians and reptiles collected in Mashonaland (Zimbabwe) by J. Ffolliott Darling*, with descriptions of new species (1902), and reports on a collection of batrachians and reptiles made in South Africa by C.H.B. Grant* and presented to the British Museum (Natural History) by C.D. Rudd* (1905, 1907). New amphibians from Namaqualand (1907) and Mashonaland (1907) were described in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History.

Boulenger was awarded the honorary degrees LLD (St Andrews), PhD (Giessen) and DSc (Louvain). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1894, a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1916, and was an honorary member of scientific societies in many other countries. He joined the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1905 and was president of Section D (Zoology) that same year at the association's meeting in South Africa. His presidential address dealt with the distribution of African fresh-water fishes. Despite rapid recent progress in this field he drew attention to several matters that required further investigation. As a result the British Association voted the sum of 50 pounds sterling towards further studies of the habits, varieties and distribution of the fresh-water fishes of the continent.

At least two genera were named in his honour. The genus of snakes Boulengerina includes the fish-eating water cobra of Lake Tanganyika, while Boulengerula is a genus of legless East African carnivorous amphibians. The species named after him include the southern African tortoise Homopus boulengeri and the skink Mabuya boulengeri. After his retirement Boulenger went to the Crepin Herbarium and Botanic Gardens in Brussels to study wild roses and produced a two volume work on the roses of Europe.


List of sources:
Annals of the Durban Museum, 1914-1917, Vol. 1.

Annals of the Natal Museum, 1906-1908, Vol. 1.

Annals of the South African Museum. List of papers published in volumes 1-30. Cape Town, 1938.

Branch, W.R. Reptile systematic studies in southern Africa: A brief historical overview. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1999, Vol. 54(1), pp. 137-156.

British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting... South Africa, 1905.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Marine Biologist, 1898.

Cape of Good Hope, Department of Agriculture. Marine investigations in South Africa (Vol. 1-5). Cape Town: Cape Times, 1902-1908.

Debus, A.G. (Ed.) World who's who in science. Chicago: Marquis, 1968.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica, combined 9th and 10th editions, 1875-1902.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London, 1910.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Obituary: George Albert Boulenger, 1858-1937. Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1940, Vol. 3(8), pp. 13-17.

Poynton, J.C. The amphibians of southern Africa: a faunal study. Annals of the Natal Museum, 1964, Vol. 17, pp. 1-334.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Smith, J.L.B. The sea fishes of South Africa (5th ed., references). Central News Agency, 1965.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: Nasou, 1970-1976.

Thompson, W.W. The sea fisheries of the Cape Colony (p. 137). Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1913.

Who was who, Vol. 3, 2nd ed. London: Adam & Black, 1967.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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