Tuesday, August 30, 2022

A 1664 Account of Canadian Herpetofauna, including Perhaps the Earliest Mention of the American Bullfrog in North America

Histoire véritable et naturelle des mœurs & reproductions du pays de la Nouvelle France, vulgairement dite le Canada. Composé par Pierre Boucher, escuyer sieur de Gros-Bois, & gouverneur des Trois-rivières, audit lieu de la Nouvelle-France. A Paris, Chez Florentin Lambert, ruë Saint-Jacques, vis à vis Saint Yves, à l'image Saint Paul. 1664. 168 pp.


Figure 1. Title page of Boucher’s treatise on Nouvelle France, 1664.
Original copy online at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2036225). Accessed 29 August 2022.


        There are very few accounts of the natural history of 17th Century North America that mention animals beyond those considered commercially valuable. Perhaps the earliest Canadian account is that of Pierre Boucher published in Paris in 1664. Pierre Boucher de Boucherville (born Pierre Boucher; 1 August 1622–19 April 1717) was a French settler, soldier, officer, naturalist, official, governor, and ennobled aristocrat in Nouvelle France. He emigrated from France in 1634 at the age of 18, and spent four years with the Huron missions at Georgian Bay where he learned native languages. Through the years, he rose from an enlisted soldier to captain, fought against and negotiated treaties with the Iroquois, and became governor-general at Trois Rivières in 1648. In 1661, he was sent to France to represent the colonies. Because of his outstanding service to the nation, Pierre Boucher was the first Canadian settler to be ennobled by King Louis XIV. Boucher was reappointed governor in 1662 and remained so until 1667. In 1664, he published his observations on Canada, focusing on the First Nations peoples and cultures, and on the flora and fauna of this vast new territory. He died in 1717 at Boucherville on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in what is now a suburb of Montreal.

Herpetofauna in Boucher’s book is covered in three pages (pp. 65–67). Three snakes are mentioned based on color pattern. Rousseau and Legendre (1966) stated that Boucher only identified one species, the couleuvre à formettes. This is certainly Crotalus horridus, since Boucher noted that the Iroquois considered the species dangerous and had an herb they used to treat the bite. However, Boucher also mentioned a green and yellow species (likely Opheodrys vernalis) and a shiny black and white species (likely a composite of Thamnophis sauritus and T. sirtalis).

There is a brief mention of Lezards, a term in the 1660s used for both lizards and salamanders, but no details are provided. A full paragraph is devoted to the description of an aquatic frog, most assuredly Lithobates catesbeianus. Boucher stated that “elles meuglent le soir comme un boeuf” (they call at night like a bull) and that numbers calling together sound like a heard of wild cattle. He further noted that the call could be heard at a grand league, although people did not believe him when he told them that. A French league in the 1600s was about 3.9 km (Chandon, 1980).  Toads were noted as larger than those occurring in France; this observation almost certainly refers to Anaxyrus americanus. Beyond that, Boucher noted that there were many other species of anurans that resembled those he was familiar with in France, but he provided no details.

Although the accounts are brief and no distribution or natural history information is presented, Boucher’s account is one of the earliest mentions of an identifiable species of frog in North America, and suggests that C. horridus was well-known to First Nations peoples in areas where it has now been extirpated. However, his reference to “dans le pays des Iroquois” (in the land of the Iroquois) may refer to areas including upstate New York and Vermont where the species still occurs.


Chandon, R. 1980. The linear league in North America. Annales of the Association of American Geographers 70:129–153.

Rousseau, J., and V. Legendre. 1966. Poissons, Batraciens, Crustacēs, Insectes et Mollusques. Pp. 303–335 In Les Animaux du Canada en 1664. Le Faune Indigēne. Service de la Faune du Québec Bulletin No. 8.

Submitted by: C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr.

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