So how do we fix these issues of nomenclature.

Happy New Year to everyone, I was happy to see that my blog is being read by 51 countries from the report for 2014. My first attempts at this so was happy with the interest. I have been traveling since August in Australia, I head back to Brazil at the end of January. At times it has been difficult to write particularly throughout November and December. However, I feel I should write something here today and wanted to outline exactly how nomenclatural issues are dealt with.

First and foremost it is important that the person dealing with an issue follows the ICZN code. Some issues can be dealt with by the author in a review paper. This paper should be published in a first class peer reviewed journal, for example a Museum Journal or a major journal specializing in taxonomy such as Zootaxa. As I have said many issues must be dealt with by the ICZN Commission, but when it can be dealt with by review it must follow the code precisely. However what I want to outline here in detail is how to formulate a case and the process for an ICZN submission.

I have authored two cases to the commission and commented on several others so am quite familiar with the process. The ICZN webpage does have author guidelines and information on this also. I will use one of my cases to demonstrate the process (one that is completed); I have discussed the issue involved in the case before, in my post on the Northern Snake-necked Turtles, however there I discussed the issues, not the process. Here I will discuss the process. Readers can refer to my first post for the surrounding issues.

The case I am referring to is Case 3351 published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature in September 2006. To start with though I will discuss all the nomenclatural acts involved. The first of which appeared in my paper on the identification of the holotype of Chelodina oblonga (Thomson, 2000). In this paper apart from outlining the issues I made it very clear that only a decision by the ICZN could effectively resolve this case. My nomenclatural points from that paper were:

  1. Chelodina oblonga holotype was actually a Northern Snake-neck Turtle, it was misidentified.
  2. The name Chelodina rugosa was a junior synonym of Chelodina oblonga.
  3. Oldest name for the South-west Snake-neck is Chelodina colliei (I also set a lectotype for this species name)
  4. I called on Article 82.1 for nomenclature to remain unchanged until the ICZN made a decision.

Unfortunately my request that others follow article 82.1 was not followed, and very quickly in the literature the name Chelodina colliei became popularized as the name for the South-west Snake-neck. At the same time people continued to use Chelodina rugosa for the Northern Snake-neck. In a way this helped a little, people got used to using the name Chelodina colliei and at least for that species confusion was largely averted. In another paper (Iverson et al. 2001) we made some changes as first reviewer to the name Macrochelodina, we switched the type species from Chelodina oblonga to Chelodina rugosa. The reason for this was that if the name Chelodina oblonga had been retained for the South-west Snake-neck this would have changed where this genus name went. So to ensure it stayed where its original authors intended we made the type species unambiguous. As I have said many times, the name follows the type.

In 2006 I finally put up the case to the ICZN. I asked them to reverse the precedence (under the Principal of Priority) for the names Chelodina oblonga and Chelodina rugosa. So how is this done. Basically it is a review paper that is submitted directly to the ICZN secretariat. I had to outline the entire history of the issue, demonstrate the issues with the name, then make a request that the ICZN use its plenary powers, under article 81.1 to make the necessary changes I was after. The secretariat sends this paper for peer review, by three commissioners, and then it goes through the usual process of journal publication. There is some back and forth between the secretariat and myself as author until we get a version that satisfies any concerns of the reviewers. It was then finally published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. This is the journal of the ICZN and all cases and comments on them are published there.

Once it was published the paper is up for public comment, anyone with an interest is invited to comment on the proposal and this case attracted a number of these. Many supported my solution to the issue but not all. One comment suggested setting the Chelodina colliei lectotype as neotype for Chelodina oblonga, an act only the ICZN can do. This was certainly a viable solution to the issue, it would have retained the names exactly as they had been used, albeit incorrectly, for the preceding 30 odd years. Six months after the last published comment the Commission can vote and they did vote but failed to get the 2/3 majority in favor of my proposal. So it was set for revote. At this point something very unfortunate happened.

As I have said, authors must be very careful with their interpretations of the ICZN codes, it reads more like law and is not science. A paper was published in Reptilia that tried to fix this issue (McCord et al. 2007) the problem is that what they attempted to do could not be done by anyone but the ICZN. In this paper they wanted to name a new genus for the South-west species Chelodina colliei, they called it Macrodiremys. As a note these genera of Snake-necks I am talking about are currently recognized as subgenera (Georges and Thomson, 2010).  To ensure the group they were naming was un-named they had to deal with Macrochelodina themselves (and the possibility that Chelodina oblonga was its type species) hence they tried to set the Chelodina colliei lectotype as a neotype for Chelodina oblonga, thus returning the name to its former species. They set their concept of Chelodina oblonga as the type species for their new genus.

When you try to take on board the ability to make a nomenclatural act that you cannot, here is where you come undone. You may not be able to do what you want, but a nomenclatural act you have made and it cannot be un-done either. So what did they end up doing? They made a new species name. They created a name Macrodiremys oblonga McCord et al. 2007 that was based on the same specimen (the lectotype) as the older name Chelodina colliei. This is not the same name as the original Chelodina oblonga Gray 1841. Please note I am deliberately writing the names in full here, which includes the authors of the name. Their new name is a Junior Objective Synonym of Chelodina colliei, so can never be used, which also makes Chelodina colliei the type species of their new genus. So I guess no harm done there the genus was erected where they intended, however using it now had to wait the outcome of the ICZN decision.

This did actually do some harm, as did a number of other factors. Confusion over the meaning of Western Australia, ie Western Australia in 1841, not 2013 (when the ICZN made their decision). Confusion over the taxonomy of the Northern Snake-neck, which is far from resolved. Hence in the end the ICZN finally voted and made a decision in 2013 in what is called an opinion that was published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature also (ICZN, 2013). They decided that we should follow the Principal of Priority and allocate all names accordingly.

So this left us where we are today, the northern Snake-neck is Chelodina (Macrochelodina) oblonga, the South-west Snake-neck is Chelodina (Macrodiremys) colliei. Chelodina rugosa and Chelodina siebenrocki are junior synonyms of Chelodina oblonga. My advice here if you want to make nomenclatural acts, they must go in a properly peer reviewed journal, this gives you the safety of people who know the code checking your work before its published, do try to understand and know the code. You can contact the ICZN for advice, visit their webpage. I am also happy to help.


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