Hubert Saint Girons PhD Hon FRSNZ


Hubert Saint Girons

1926 – 2000

Last year marked the passing of one of France’s most distinguished herpetologists. Hubert Saint Girons died after a short illness on 18 April 2000 in Nantes, not far from his home at Bohallard, close to the small town of Nozay in the west of France. Hubert’s most significant contribution to New Zealand science was his preparation with colleague Manfred Gabe of a major monograph on the histology of the tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus (Gabe & Saint Girons 1964). To the best of my knowledge Hubert made three visits to New Zealand and on the second of these, in 1978, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Society of New Zealand. The address he presented to Society members at that time (introduced by his friend the late Dr Kazimierz Wodzicki) was published later in Tuatara, the journal of the Biological Society of Victoria University of Wellington (Saint Girons 1980). I count myself fortunate in having had the opportunity to meet and work with him on that and a subesquent visit he made to New Zealand in 1984 with his wife Marie-Charlotte. Together we visited the tuatara-inhabited islands Lady Alice Island in the Chickens group and Stephens Island in Cook Strait. Several papers came from our work (Saint Girons et al. 1980; Saint Girons et al. 1986; Saint Girons & Newman 1987; Castanet et al. 1988).

Hubert was born in 1926 and, surprisingly, received no formal academic training. While farming the grounds of his small château at Bohallard, he became fascinated by the local European vipers. He commenced studying them with a passion that he retained for the rest of his life. His work led to him being awarded a doctorate in 1951 (University of Paris) for his research on the reproductive biology and ecology of European vipers. He was then recruited by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and by the age of 36 was promoted to become France’s youngest Directeur de Recherche, the highest grade in the CNRS.

As Directeur de Recherche au CNRS he worked for many years at the Centre d’Ecologie at Brunoy, before moving to his base laboratory at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in the Laboratoire d’Evolution des Etres Organisés in Boulevard Raspail in Paris. From there he spent half of each year conducting detailed histological studies, and the other half mostly at Bohallard carrying out field work.

A feature of his career was his ability to change from one field to another, mastering each new discipline in turn. His early studies were done in collaboration with Manfred Gabe, perhaps one of the world’s finest histologists, and he learnt many of the exemplary skills that he employed in his morphological research directly from Gabe. Not only did they publish on the histology of tuatara, they produced a series of detailed accounts of the cytology of the nasal cavity and Jacobson’s Organ of many reptiles. Hubert’s work on the cellular structure and secretory capacity of the pituitary gland of reptiles laid the groundwork for later experimental studies by other scientists.

Hubert was one of the first zoologists to attempt to correlate laboratory with field studies of animals in their natural environment and this led to his interest in, and contribution to the new field of ecophysiology. He published pioneering work in the 1950s on the sources of energy and materials stored by animals prior to reproduction. He also made a major contribution to studies of hibernation in mammals, again combining field and histological studies to unravel the nature of the basic mechanisms involved.

Hubert’s studies of snakes are noteworthy for his innovative use of outdoor enclosures. Large enclosures allowed him to maintain and study snakes in relatively controlled, but semi-natural, conditions. Many of the observations he made on snakes in enclosures have produced important conclusions, as well as hypotheses that can now be tested by using newer "high-tech" methods such as rediotelemetry, on free-ranging animals in the field.

Hubert’s pioneering contributions spanned not only a diversity of taxa, concepts and methods, but also involved a broad set of environments. Although his beloved vipers were the centrepiece of this work, he also conducted some of the first rigorous studies of the ecology and reproductive biology of tropical reptiles – his research on the snakes of Cambodia and New Caledonia deserve special mention. He worked extensively in the High Atlas of Morocco, collecting and describing new species. He participated in herpetological expeditions in both Australia and New Zealand.

Australian colleagues recount one memorable trip made to the north-west desert in 1978. The expedition went well until a wheel on the laboratory-caravan exploded some 200 km from the nearest town! Most of the team were left by the side of the road while the more mechanically minded headed off with the salvaged pieces in search of an expert welder. It was very hot (45°C!), and dusty, and everyone except Hubert became progressively more dishevelled and dirty as time went by. Hubert remained impeccable. Not a speck of dust ever adhered to him! All he ever asked for was a glass of cold white wine at sunset which he drank while looking disparagingly at his rather grubby field companions.

Hubert did not take on students personally but he was always generous with his time and ideas. He was instrumental in launching the career of many young herpetologists world-wide. He was a wonderful host and many colleagues recall happy times spent at Bohallard with Hubert and his wife Marie-Charlotte. Marie-Charlotte was also a scientist in her own right (although she insisted that she was a geographer and not a zoologist!). They worked on many projects together starting with their classic paper in Vie et Milieu in 1956 on reptilian thermoregulation (Saint Girons & Saint Girons 1956) and continuing with many other papers and translations of books into French over the years. Unfortunately, Marie-Charlotte died a few years before Hubert and his last years were never the same without her.

Throughout his career Hubert published more than 200 papers. His reputation as a distinguished herpetologist was acknowledged throughout the world. His greatest regret was not being able to speak English fluently, although he could read it with ease. This minor limitation led to the only occasion, in my experience, where he lost his composure, albeit briefly. We were approaching Stephens Island for the first time when I realised suddenly that somehow, with my non-existent French, I had to convey to Hubert the subtleties of clinging to a cargo net dangling from the island crane in order to be winched ashore. There was an awkward moment overcome by clumsy mime and impressively quick perception from Hubert (a display of true Gallic flare!). That night, at sunset, Hubert impeccable as ever, took two glasses of cold white wine "to settle the nerves". On subsequent trips with Hubert and Marie-Charlotte (1984), a French interpreter joined our party.

With Hubert’s death his colleagues have lost a charming and generous friend, and the world one of its most distinguished herpetologists.

In compiling this account I drew upon the recollections of Hubert’s colleagues Don Bradshaw, Xavier Bonnet, Rick Shine, Patrick Gregory, Peter van Bree, and his daughter Anne Saint Girons. I thank them for the help and for the material they provided.


Castanet, J.; Newman, D. G.; Saint Girons, H. 1988: Skeletochronological data on the growth, age, and population structure of the tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus, on Stephens and Lady Alice Islands, New Zealand. Herpetologica 44: 25 – 37.

Gabe, M.; Saint Girons, H. 1964: Contribution a l’histologie de Sphenodon punctatus Gray. Paris, Editions du Centre National de la Rechereche Scientifique. 149 p.

Saint Girons, H. 1980: Thermoregulation in reptiles with special reference to the tuatara and its ecophysiology. Tuatara 24: 59 – 80.

Saint Girons, H.; Newman, D. G. 1987: The reproductive cycle of the male tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus, on Stephens Island, New Zealand. New Zealand journal of zoology 14: 231 – 237.

Saint Girons, H.; Saint Girons, M. C. 1956: Cycle d’activité et thermorégulation chez les reptiles (lezards et serpents). Vie Milieu 7: 133 – 226.

Saint Girons, H.; Bell, B. D.; Newman, D. G. 1980: Observations on the activity and thermoregulation of the tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus (Reptilia: Rhynchocephalia), on Stephens Island. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 7: 551 – 556.

Saint Girons, M. C.; Newman, D. G.; McFadden, I. 1986: Food of the morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae) on Lady Alice Island (Hen and Chickens Group). Notornis 33: 189 – 190.

Donald G. Newman

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