The advantages and disadvantages of International Lists of Species.

I have mentioned several times that I favor the use of International Lists of species for clear and obvious groups of reptiles. The one I use significantly is the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group’s annual checklist of turtles. I favor the production of these lists but with several caveats. I am going to explain the advantages and disadvantages of these lists in this post.

One of the biggest disadvantages is a point made by Pauly et al, 2009, that no one group should have overall control over the nomenclature of a given taxonomic group. This goes against the principals of the ICZN Code. This I do agree with. The danger of a single group having such control is that personal preference and opinion will pervade the list. The way to prevent this is to have a diverse group of editors of the list with a review process that ensures this does not occur. The list of editors must include those who have a good understanding of the ICZN code and must be rigid in its usage of the code, that is they must not over-read the code or go beyond it. This is actually a very difficult thing to do.

Another difficulty of course is having everyone use it. My personal view on this is it is better for nomenclature to work from a top down perspective. That is, international lists by major oganisations for a group of taxa that are followed by countries and states. Otherwise we end up with species having different names in different states or countries. This is of no use to anyone and is particularly difficult for management of endangered species. So basically we would have an International Body develop the lists these would be followed by the IUCN and CITES where relevant and then in turn followed by countries and the states therein. You will hear the argument for example that “species X is from this State, so we get to determine its name” actually no you don’t, the name is determined by those following the ICZN Code at an international level by naming it something different the State is potentially producing a dual nomenclature.

This is all about preventing dual nomenclature. I have said in several posts that this is a major problem and for a variety of reasons, least of all confusion. One thing I am pleased to see in the IUCN and CITES is that they at least are very consistent and adament about their nomenclature. I cannot say the same for countries and states. So in summary the disadvantages are mostly about monopolies which we need to be wary of, the risk of dual nomenclatures, and ensuring they are used.

The advantages of these lists if they are done well are manyfold. First up you have a consistent nomenclature for the group. No-one has to try to determine the name of a species and its validity when they have little to no interest in taxonomy. They can just look it up. It provides also some easy to obtain statistics on the group in question, eg. number of described taxa, percentage endangered, regional statistics also there are many reasons you may wish to state some of these statistics in a non taxonomic paper, this makes them easy to obtain. They also give you such basic data as who named the taxon, when it was named, type locality, type specimen if they are detailed, synonyms. All these data are also sometimes desired or required in non-taxonomic papers.

Another, possibly not so obvious advantage, is that this list annually maintained provides a starting point for a LAN (List of Available Names) if it is ever desired to produce one. The LAN is an opportunity for the researchers on a group to produce an official list of available names for their taxonomic group of interest. This process done with the ICZN can greatly simplify or establish the accepted nomenclature for the group. Particularly useful where there have been issues in the nomenclature. A well done annual list by an international body is effectively a LAN in all but name, that has yet to be approved by the ICZN. So definitely worth having.

Within the Reptiles I do not believe a single list for all reptiles is either feasable or desirable. It is too large and too many names. It would seem better for international bodies to split the reptiles up as they have been many times in the past for discussions basically as turtles, snakes, lizards and crocodiles. Remember this is not about pure phylogeny, it is just a starting point of where to enclose the groups of interest. This is my take on international lists, I see them extremely useful, if done with a precautionary method that takes into account their inherent issues also.

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