Why is nomenclature so important in vertebrates such as reptiles?

The topics I am discussing here are specific examples of nomenclatural confusion. They are ones where different groups are using different names for the same species.  The application of the nomenclature for a species or species group is reliant on the taxonomy, hence as with any science change is inevitable. Hence many of the changes people see in the names we apply to species are for taxonomic reasons. It is true there are some nomenclatural issues, such as the Chelodina oblonga case I mentioned, but the Emydura macquarii case was largely taxonomic.

Nomenclature is concerned with the availability of names, that is can the name be used, whereas the validity of names is the taxonomy. If a name is available then it should either be used (if valid) or placed in the synonymy of another name (if invalid). Although the field of nomenclature and the science of taxonomy are connected, they are separate and are dealt with separately. The ICZN for example is only concerned with the nomenclatural (availability) of names, how they are used is up to taxonomists.

It is important that we all use the same names for the species we are interested in for a number of reasons. First and foremost is confusion, it is difficult and ineffective if we communicate with different names for the same organism but it goes far beyond this. Another important point specific to vertebrates (and some invertebrates) is legislation. Almost all vertebrates in most countries are afforded some level of legislative protection; this does vary country to country and even within states in some countries. However when species become endangered they are scheduled, or list, and this is done by their scientific name. It serves no purpose for a species to be listed under different names in different states only because of inconsistency in the application of nomenclature.

This is why I am in favor of international checklists done by major interest groups. In turtles, as an example, the checklist done annually by the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group takes many months to prepare; it is prepared and reviewed by internationally renowned specialists in the study and management of turtle species.  This checklist takes into account all recent publications, determines the availability and validity of all the names for all the species. It then produces a widely distributed and freely available document that anyone can check for the currently accepted nomenclature. Then everyone is on the same page. Whatever it is that is your interest in, following this example, turtles you can follow it through with no confusion necessary. No need to try and justify the name you’re using or be unsure of what someone else is talking about.

It also has a major impact in medicine, snakebite is an unfortunate occurrence but it happens, when trying to get treatment for a snakebite the last thing you want is the name you are using for the species that bit you to be different to the one on the antivenin or that the doctors treating you know. Similar problems occur in trade, CITES, the IUCN, and local authorities may have different names for the same species. This is not helpful when all licences must agree with each other for the transfer of an animal. This already occurs and is one of the reasons I started this blog.

An example in Australia is the Saw-shelled Turtle, in Queensland known as Wollombinia latisternum, in NSW known as Myuchelys latisternum. Same species, different names in different States of Australia. The name Wollombinia is of cause an unavailable name, this has been published numerous times, with no refutation to this ever presented. In fact the name Wollombinia has never been used for this genus in a peer-reviewed scientific paper. The availability of this name has come down to the individual opinion of a very small number of people. This dual nomenclature serves no value and only creates confusion.

Another value of the binomial names and hence nomenclature is that it can be recognized irrespective of the language of the document.  Even documents in non-latin texts will still print the scientific names of a species in their correct latin format. Hence as a non-reader of many of these languages I can see what species a paper is discussing, and if it’s a species of interest I can go to the trouble of translating it.

In the end the value of nomenclature is that it is the basis for our ability to communicate about the species that are of interest to us. Our topics of interest can be different, just how scientific we want to be can be different, it can be ecology, husbandry, genetics, or any other field of science, but at least we can know the species being discussed and decide if the paper is relevant to what we want to know. It is the standard names for all the species.

So in summary it is best if we are all using the same names for the species we work with, it is important to stay up to date on that. If there are International checklists for your species group I would suggest those as a major reference to what name you should use. If this is not available then the latest peer-reviewed literature on the species you are interested in will help also.


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