Category Archives: Turtles

Wikispecies – Lets just list them all!

WikiSpecies LogoSince it has been a while since I posted anything I am going to talk about a project I am heavily involved in. Wikispecies. What is it? Well Wikispecies is not Wikipedia for one. So do not go there expecting to see articles on all your topics of interest, some 5 million on the English Wikipedia. No when you arrive at Wikispecies you will see that it is about one thing. Taxonomy and Nomenclature. That is the names of all living things organized by their hierarchies. So I will take you for a tour of the site. A big part of why I am writing this I will conceed is I am looking for more editors for Wikispecies. In particular taxonomists to edit the sections on the species they know. For myself, as I stated I am directly involved in Wikispecies. My user page on Wikimedia Foundation Projects is Faendalimas. The link on my name will take you to my User page on Wikispecies. On there it can be seen that I am a Bureaucrat, a CheckUser, and an Administrator. Basically apart from editing I am involved in a considerable about of policy development and management for the site. On my user page you will notice that my real name, Scott Thomson, is also a link. This is because I have named numerous taxa and hence have a taxonomic authority page which has my various taxonomic publications, category lists to all the taxa I have described etc. I would encourage anyone who has named species to be involved in this. It is a great opportunity to have a say in what goes on your authority page, including links to all your publications. You can make sure your species you have named are all listed, listed correctly, have all the data included.

Elseya rhodini So to walk you all through an example I am going to use a species I have discussed here before. Yes it is one I named, but it is an easy example for me. The southern New Guinea Stream turtle, Elseya rhodini, has its own page and I will explain what is in it (for this article I suggest opening the Wikispecies page for Elseya rhodini and refer to it). So each species has particular information presented. Photo’s are optional on Wikispecies. We put them there when they are available. But are not needed. Wikispecies is about information. The first thing to notice is the hierarchy is presented. Every parent taxon that the species Elseya rhodini belongs to is listed. For example it is a member of the subgenus Hanwarachelys and by clicking on this you can see its sister species, Elseya schultzei and Elseya novaeguineae, next up of course is Elseya, then Chelodininae etc. Each jump up the hierarchy shows more and more related species. Each species page has the type data, the holotype, the type locality, the original reference (often downloadable). Lets imagine you were embarking on a study of the taxonomy of the Elseya. From these pages you can get all the holotype information, all the original references and the current synonymies of every taxon relevant to the Elseya. As Wikispecies develops, it currently has half a million taxa done, you will be able to do this for any living organism on the planet. That is the scope and plan of Wikispecies.

So how do you become involved. Many probably already can. If you have an account on Wikipedia you can make the account global and actually edit as an identified editor on any Wiki Project. If you have no account create one. If you are not logged in your edits will appear as an ip address and these are not viewed favorably. Once you have an account you can start editing. Of course you will need to learn some wiki markup. The language is very simple to use, and not difficult to learn. But we do use templates. If you click on Edit Source you will see the code of the page. In the code near the top for example is {{Elseya (Hanwarachelys)}}, this is a template, and that piece of code contains the entire hierarchy down to the subgenus name. Another template is {{aut|Thomson}} this one makes all the text after the “|” into small caps. That is my name. There are also features such as double square brackets “[[ ]]” which makes the text a link, or ” … ” which makes the text italic. It is easy to learn and if you look around wikipedia you will find plenty of information on wiki-markup language.

If you look around the site you will see what are known as red-links. Links are supposed to be blue (unvisited) or purple (visited) but not red. Red means the link goes to a page not created. Those pages need to be made. Here is my plea. Anyone who has an interest in life, I do not care what species, take an interest. Edit some pages. Edit the pages on the species you like. That is all. You need the references, type data, and most recent synonymy. With that you can create the page. If you need help go to my talk page, see me on IRC in Freenode Channel #Wikispecies. I will help anyone who wants to edit Wikispecies. Please remember one thing. It is not true that anyone can edit the Wikimedia Foundation pages and destroy someone else’s efforts. New users are considered unpatrolled edits. Every edit is checked by editors who patrol these edits. We also have bots that do it. Vandalism, is generally undone (reverted) within minutes of it occurring. People are always asking for a single site that has all the basic taxonomic and nomenclatural data for all species. Well it is being made. Come help make it. It cannot do it by itself or automatically.

Why nomenclature? A case of history.

Matamata (Chelus fimbriatus) on riverbank, Pacaya Samiria National Park, Peru

Matamata (Chelus fimbriatus) on riverbank, Pacaya Samiria National Park, Peru

One thing I am guessing may be curious is why I a taxonomist and paleontologist, both hard sciences, would be interested in nomenclature. Part of it is of course me and my own interests. It is fair to say that if I had not become a scientist I could easily see myself doing literature I like writing and enjoy books, particularly antique books. I also see it as an important component when studying taxonomy, after all once I determine through scientific methods that a population is a species I do have to decide what it should be called, and sometimes it already has a name, lost and forgotten in synonymy. Unlike much of science where we read the latest findings and older studies are made somewhat redundant by recent advances, the so called cutting edge, nomenclature is the exact opposite with nomenclature we have to start at the beginning.

The ICZN rules determine that the beginning is Linnaeus 1756, the starting point for modern binomial nomenclature. All names prior to that are not available even though Linnaeus copied a number of names from already common usage that go back some even thousands of years, such as Testudo greaca and Chelonia mydas that were used by Aristotle in ancient Greece. In the past I have given historical background for several names here in my discussions of their nomenclatural issues but this time I want to take one further. The Matamata (Chelus fimbriatus) has appeared in the texts of Europe since before Linneaus and  hence has pre-Linnaean names and in this post I am going to trace it back as far as I can go to when it first came to the notice of Europe in its Age of Discovery. It seems the Matamata first came to the attention of European explorers around 1730.

Albertus Seba showing a lizard in the bottle - from Wikipedia.

Albertus Seba showing a lizard in the bottle – from Wikipedia.

In the past I have been told that Albertus Seba (1665-1736) was the first to describe the Matamata in his work “Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio – Naaukeurige beschryving van het schatryke kabinet der voornaamste seldzaamheden der natuur 1734. However on examining it I find only three turtles from Brazil all described as “Testudo terrestris, Brasiliensis” and figured in Plate 80, figures 2, 3 and 6. Do not mistake this as a binomial name, even if it looks like one, that was not the intent it is in Latin and is meant as the “Forma specifica, locality” That is it is a terrestrial turtle from Brazil. By terrestrial he means its not from the ocean. Figure 2 is a Podocnemis expansa, Figure 3 is a Chelonoidis denticulata and Figure 6 seems to be a Podocnemis unifilis. The Latin descriptions of the specimens in the text would support this by their coloration. Although I have not seen the second edition, published after Seba’s death, it would appear he did not describe a Matamata. This is a very bizare looking turtle its a bit hard to miss.

The first time that the species was however described was by Pierre Barrère (1690-1755) in his work “Essai sur l’histoire naturelle de la France équinoxiale, ou Dénombrement des plantes, des animaux et des minéraux qui se trouvent dans l’isle de Cayenne, les isles de Remire, sur les côtes de la mer et dans le continent de la Guyane”  1741:165.  This Latin text describes the appearance habits of the Matamata that Barrère obtained on his journeys to Guyana and represents the oldest European description I have been able to determine is a genuine Matamata. For those who download it, please note in a PDF reader the appropriate text is on page 181, though this is 165 of the page numbers. He calls it “Testudo terrestris, major putamine echinato, & striato” basically this is saying it is a terrestrial tortoise with an echinate shell that is striated. Again by terrestrial he means not oceanic.

Of course these names are all pre-Linnaean and hence are not available for nomenclature. In Linnaeus’ 1758 edition of Systema Naturae he does mention a Testudo terrestris also as “Testudo terrestris pusilla Worm mus 313” this is not to be confused it is referring to a junior synonym of the Greek Tortoise (Testudo graeca graeca). As may be becoming apparent, quite a few turtles have been called what is effectively “Land Tortoise” over the last 280 years. The link to Linnaeus offered here is a cut-down version with only the turtles in it.

The next description of the species was actually not a bad one, though as I will explain later it cannot be used for nomenclatural purposes. It was the first to describe the Matamata’s infamous facial structures and appendages. This was by Phillipe Fermin (1720-1790) (sorry I can locate no online biography for this person) in a publication called “Histoire naturelle de la Hollande équinoxiale ou description des animaux, plantes, fruits et autres curiosités naturelles, qui se trouvent dans la colonie de Surinam, avec leurs noms différents, tant françois, que latins, hollandois, indiens et nègre-anglois” (1765:51) it is the oldest post-Linnaean name for the species. It was named “Tortue de Terra, en Latin Testudo terrestris, en Indien Raparapa“. He has technically given it the scientific name of Testudo terrestris here and this could technically be the oldest binomial name for the species. It is also the first time the native American name was published. However at a later date this name was dealt with as I shall explain. In Linneaus 1767 and again in 1788 “Testudo terrestris” is mentioned in various combinations that are not relevant to the Matamata. In 1775 Peter Forsskål described the species that is now known as Testudo graeca terrestris a name that was used for many years as either a species or subspecies. The name gained over time what is seen as stability of usage. Being used for the eastern African form of the Spur Thighed Tortoise or Greek Tortoise. It has therefore become destabilising to recognise that this well used name was in fact a junior Homonym to an unused and forgotten name for the Matamata. In nomenclature a homonym is where two names are spelt exactly the same which is not permitted under the Principal of Homonymy, and normally the senior Homonym takes priority.

Johann Gottlob Theaenus Schneider

Johann Gottlob Theaenus Schneider – from Wikipedia

In the meantime back in South America another description of the Matamata had occured. Johann Gottlob Schneider (1750-1822) named the species as we know it today, Testudo fimbriata, now of course in a different genus as Chelus fimbriatus. The spelling change is from what is called the Principal of Coordination, where the gender of the genus and the species names must match. This name also gained long term usage and stability. Interestingly Schneider mentions both Barrère and Fermin in his description of the Matamata and personally I am not entirely convinced he ever saw one. For there is no specimen of the species he had access to at the time, hence there is no holotype. It would seem Schneider’s description is basically based on Fermin and Barrère’s descriptions, in fact he copies part of Fermin’s description word for word. However, it is a binomial name and one of the oldest for the species.  Another description shortly after Schneider was Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804) who was continuing Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, I am not really convinced this is a description he called it Testudo fimbria and immediately seems to credit Schneider, it may be a mistake. Interesting to note however he states that Fermin’s specimen came from Surinam, that Barrère’s is from Guyana but makes no mention of any specimen for Schneider.  This one does get listed in synonymies, probably more for safety reasons, ie we cannot be sure.

Figure from Brugiere 1792 of the Mata mata.

Figure from Brugiere 1792 of the Mata mata.

The next description was interesting because this is where we get the common name of Matamata. Jean-Guillaume Bruguière (1750-1798) in a work “Description d’une nouvelle espèce de tortue de Cayenne. Journal d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris 1(7):253–261.” 1792, describes a new species as Testudo matamata, his specimen was sent to Paris and is in all likelihood that later studied by Georges Cuvier. This specimen is from French Guyana. We still do not have a holotype, but I suspect that if Georges Cuvier’s specimens from his 1825 publications on this species are still in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, then this may be the type of Chelus matamata and the oldest holotype for any name for the species. As best as I can determine Bruguière was one of the first to publish an illustration of the Mata mata.

At this point Ruiz de Xelva described Testudo bispinosa in 1801 and John Edward Gray described Testudo rapara and Testudo raparara in 1831 and 1844 respectively. These descriptions offered nothing new, no holotypes and are listed in the synonymy because they are available names.

The last description of note was by George Baur (1859-1898) this description is very interesting because it may be the only description of an Amazonian specimen of the Matamata. All the others appear to have been Orinoco, being from Surinam and Guyana. In a paper “An apparently new species of Chelys” published in American Naturalist he described the species Chelys boulengerii. This paper is interesting because when compared to Georges Cuvier’s descriptive anatomy paper of 1824 they are strikingly different and this is one reason that leads me to thinking they are Orinoco and Amazonian. These are all one species currently but it is important to try and find old types and try to pin down type localities when possible.

Cuvier's skull drawing (left) compared to Boulengers 1891 (right) drawing of the Chelys boulengeri skull.

Cuvier’s skull drawing (left) compared to Boulengers 1891 (right) drawing of the Chelys boulengeri skull.

After all of these attempts to name this species it was clear there were some issues and this was going to require some attention. So in 1960 Mertens and Wermuth in Case 1459 (to old to look up on the ICZN site)  apart from other housekeeping of names they also requested that Fermin’s name Testudo terrestris be overturned to conserve stability. This was responded to by Holthius (1960) that Fermin’s work was not entirely binomial and hence could be placed on the List of Rejected Works in Zoology. The ICZN handed down their decision (Opinion 660) in 1963 which on this issue agreed with Holthius and the entire work of Fermin was basically declared unavailable for nomenclature. This freed up the name Testudo terrestris (as a subspecies of Testudo graeca) for the Spur-Thighed Tortoise and maintained Testudo fimbriata for the Matamata.  Hence stability of nomenclature was maintained.

That is the complete story of the naming of the Matamata in an effort that lasted 270 years from start to finish.

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.

Staying up to date with names: The Chelodina subgenera and the species within.


First up just a quick mention here, I have been traveling the last week or so, looking at fossils of turtles in Lightning Ridge. As such it was a bit difficult to write this blog. But I will put up this post today. I am currently in Australia for 5 months but live in Brazil. So traveling has been a part of this, a lot of it.

The long necked turtles in Australia have long been recognized as the genus Chelodina and up until the 1980’s only half a dozen or so species were recognized. In this period the recognized species consisted of Chelodina longicollis (Eastern Longneck Turtle); Chelodina novaeguineae (New Guinea Longneck Turtle); Chelodina steindachneri (Dinner Plate Turtle); Chelodina expansa (Broad Shell Turtle); Chelodina rugosa (Northern Snakeneck Turtle [now Chelodina oblonga]); Chelodina oblonga (Oblong Turtle [now Chelodna colliei the South Western Snakeneck Turtle]); and Chelodina parkeri (Parker’s Snakeneck Turtle). Please do see my post on the Chelodina oblonga / rugosa issue. In any case about 5 species were recognized, people sometimes also recognized Chelodina siebenrocki (New Guinea Snakeneck Turtle) as a distinct species.

In 1974 it began to become clear that there were two or three distinctive lineages in the Chelodina and they became known as Chelodina A (C. longicollis and allies); Chelodina B (Chelodina expansa and allies) and sometimes a third group, Chelodina C (Chelodina oblonga [now Chelodina colliei]). This was based on the mode of feeding and on some early molecular work (Burbidge et al. 1974). This was supported by work using electrophoresis (Georges and Adams, 1992). All this of course is the beginnings of a major taxonomic overhaul but it had many nomenclatural implications. As the taxonomy evolved it has become necessary to change the nomenclature. This example is presented to show that nomenclature cannot be any more stable than the science of taxonomy that underpins it. Hence hoping for a stable nomenclature is largely impossible as science evolves.

One of these clades within the Chelodina was named Macrochelodina (Wells and Wellington, 1985) but for many years the name was not used. After this many new species were added to the Chelodina, including Chelodina reimanni, Chelodina pritchardi, Chelodina mccordi, Chelodina burrungandjii, Chelodina canni, Chelodina kuchlingi, Chelodina gunaleni and Chelodina walloyarrina. So as we can see this genus has now become rather large, and because of the deep clades that are supported by morphology, morphometrics and molecular work it became desirable to recognize them.

The name Macrochelodina was therefore resurrected to full genus status, with little idea of what to do with what had now become known as Chelodina colliei. The case of Chelodina colliei has been addressed in an earlier post. Eventually the name Macrodiremys was coined for the Chelodina C group and myself and Arthur Georges in our 2010 synonymy and keys sank these genera to subgenus. We did this because although the three clades are very different, they are also all long necks and this kept a level of recognition that all these species are closely related with respect to the short necked species.

There are many problems in the taxonomy of all the members of this large group of species that need to be addressed. Because of the many taxonomic issues, there are related nomenclatural issues. As I have said many times, nomenclature and taxonomy are linked and when you affect the taxonomy, you also affect the nomenclature.

One of the biggest issues has been the erection of species without any scientific evidence presented, or poor quality evidence, to demonstrate they are in fact species. Some of this is because of the poor review quality of the journals that have published these descriptions. The names Chelodina gunaleni and Chelodina walloyarrina have been described in a hobby magazine (Reptilia) as such the rigor required in a taxonomic work to formally name a species is absent. In neither case is the population represented by the name adequately diagnosed from its nearest relatives.

When I described Chelodina burrungandjii in 2000 I included in the analysis the population I then called Chelodina sp. (Kimberley) feel free to read my paper for this (Thomson et al. 2000). This population was not adequately differentiated from Chelodina burrungandjii and as such I kept it as an unnamed population, referring it to Chelodina burrungandjii. Hence the species was shown to have two population’s one in Arnhem Land and the other in the Kimberley. No evidence that this Kimberley population does represent a species has been presented to science. As a nomenclatural taxonomist I recognize the species, I have to, but I also know it is a very problematic and virtually un-diagnosable species.

Chelodina gunaleni is in the same situation, it is not adequately differentiated from Chelodina novaeguineae or Chelodina reimanni. It could be a localized population of either, I do not know. I have not examined this one yet, though it is on my to do list. If I find it does not stand up to scientific rigor, it will be sunk eventually. The same can be said for the sub-species of Chelodina mccordi, also no scientific evidence has been presented, it is not known if they are sub species, species or populations. Again this requires careful study.

Many people try to recognize the three major populations within the Chelodina oblonga complex. That is Chelodina oblonga (Northern Territory), Chelodina rugosa (Cape York), and Chelodina siebenrocki (New Guinea). This one is a very complicated situation; there is mass hybridization among the long necked turtles, between many of these northern species. There is also hybridization between these taxa and Chelodina expansa and Chelodina canni. Until such time as these issues are sorted it is not possible to recognize the taxa currently under Chelodina oblonga. These taxa cannot be subspecies, since there may be overlap, so it is important to wait for the scientific evidence to be in. The nomenclatural acts will be back and forth while this is underway. It’s better to just do it once.

Another rather poorly diagnosed species was Chelodina kuchlingi; it is based on a single specimen of unlikely and hence unknown providence. It seems it may come from an area to the north of Kalumbaru, which is the current type locality. Yes there is that word type again, species also have type localities, this can be used to narrow down exactly which population is being referred to. However, it is certainly not from the current type locality since this is where Chelodina walloyarrina is from. I had sunk it into Chelodina oblonga, my reasons were that I knew it was not from where it was claimed to have been from and the only species it was similar to was Chelodina oblonga. Since I could not attach it to a valid population I got rid of it. It has been recently resurrected and Gerald Kuchling is working on where it is actually from. So the data for this one is pending and will hopefully be available soon.

As you can see, names can change quickly, they can change radically. It is not fair on nomenclatural taxonomy to expect it to be this stable rock we can all pin our work on. However, it is also not right to use poor quality taxonomy to inflate the quantity of name changes unnecessarily. If you cannot do the taxonomy well, and get it submitted to and accepted by a first class peer reviewed journal, then you really have no business naming species. People want stability and sense from nomenclature, there are going to be some changes but a constant back and forth of changes cause by poor work is not acceptable and just makes people angry. It is hard to ignore nomenclature, we have all agreed to follow a set of rules on this. But I urge people, if you want to name species you must publish it appropriately, where it will be reviewed with rigor.

Just how wrong it can go when you do not examine the types.

If you’re starting to see a recurring theme here, that is, that I spend a lot of time discussing types, I am glad. You are seeing the point, types matter, examining them is crucial. This particular case I am going to talk about some of the species in Emydura. Namely Emydura australis and Emydura victoriae, both of these names have issues, both require a complete assessment.

The species Emydura australis was named in the same paper as Chelodina oblonga by John Edward Gray (Gray, 1841). As I said in the case of Chelodina oblonga the specimens were collected in northern Australia in the years preceding this in an expedition that largely collected in what was then known as Western Australia. For many years Emydura australis was considered a valid name, it is certainly an available name. However in 1983 it was synonymized with Emydura macquarii by Hal Cogger, it was at the time thought to be the same species as it. This is in error. The holotype is most certainly from northern Australia in all likelihood from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is one of the oldest name in Australian turtles for a short necked species, the only older name being that for Emydura macquarii. The Principal of Priority would therefore have this name as valid, no matter what species it applies to. It is not a nomen dubium, it can be applied the holotype is very good and can be clearly seen as a Red-faced Turtle.

This of course makes it the oldest name for what we currently call Emydura victoriae. Well we have been in error for the last 31 years, not long enough to salvage the name Emydura victoriae through usage. So what about Emydura victoriae, this name also has problems as it is based on syntypes and the two specimens representing the species are not both the same species. One of them is a Northern Red Faced Turtle; the other is unfortunately a Murray River turtle. This is awkward if no one had done anything about it but unfortunately they have. Richard Wells and Ross Wellington have set a lectotype (Wells and Wellington, 1985) and the lectotype they chose was the Murray River Turtle specimen (Iverson et al. 2001). This cannot be overturned, except by the ICZN, and effectively places Emydura victoriae as a junior synonym of Emydura macquarii.

So the Northern Red-faced Turtle currently have several names that can apply to it, Emydura australis, which is incorrectly in synonymy, and Emydura victoriae, which is not actually a valid name for this species. How did this happen? Well because people did not examine the types. In 1983 I am sure Hal Cogger looked at the types, however the morphology and understanding of chelid turtles in Australia at that time was poorly understood, at best. This mistake is reversible and understandable. However by not examining the types and making the nomenclatural act of setting a lectotype, Wells and Wellington have effectively destroyed the name Emydura victoriae. Our concept of this species is represented by the non-name bearing type, the name cannot apply to the Northern Red-faced Turtle anymore. As I have said the name goes with the type that is the name bearing type, which is now a Murray River Turtle.

I have discussed what types are, how they are used and how important they are. This example demonstrates how easy it is to make mistakes that create a significant mess. So what can we do about this? There are three options, none of them easy and none of them that will not create a major problem in the nomenclature of the group. The following by the way is only commentary, I am not making any nomenclatural acts in this blog, I cannot. So please no-one is to consider this as such.

  1. The only one that will not require ICZN intervention is to follow the Principal of Priority and resurrect Emydura australis for the red-faced turtle and sink Emydura victoriae into Emydura macquarii.
  2. Make a case to the ICZN to conserve the name Emydura victoriae by overturning the Wells and Wellington (1985) lectotype and giving the name priority over the older name E. australis.
  3. Make a case to the ICZN to overturn the lectotype allocation and recognize both E. australis and E. victoriae as species. The populations represented by the two types can be distinguished, so there can be a case for recognizing both names.

Of these options the first one is the easiest and of the two that would require the ICZN to intervene the third option is more likely to succeed. Based on recent decisions and there reasons I am doubtful the second option would have any chance of succeeding.

The point here of course is examine the types. If you are not going to examine the appropriate material to do a taxonomic review that leads to nomenclatural acts, that is changes, that are set and cannot be undone; then I would argue you should not be publishing this material at all. The effects of what you do are wide reaching and have a serious flow on to other research areas. Your work will not be remembered well for acts that make a mess.

How names are attached to animals, the importance of the type.

I wanted to write about this one because there are a lot of misconceptions about how this is actually done. It is important to understand the process, by understanding a process we can understand why we would do something. So in this case by understanding the connection between nomenclature and taxonomy we can understand why I will recommend certain names be used.

When a species is described the actual published description is attached, or based, on a single specimen called the holotype. This specimen is a representative of a wild population. As a taxonomist I see types as so important I go to great lengths to ensure that any species I name is actually represented correctly and with useable material. There is nothing worse than have holotypes of different species that are effectively not comparable, for example, one species being represented by an adult and another by a juvenile. There are many changes in the morphology between juvenile and adult due to growth and maturity, likewise there can also be differences between the sexes.

Although not required I have come to the decision, over time, to only set adult females as Holotypes. I also set a Paratype which is an adult male and declare it the Allotype. A Paratype is one or more individual specimens examined at the same time as the holotype and declared as such in the original description, an Allotype is a specimen of opposite sex to the holotype, also declared at the same time as the Holotype. As I said the way I do this is not required, I can in fact set any specimen that is representative of the species I am describing as the Holotype and I do not have to set a Paratype or an Allotype. I do not think taxonomists working on other species should follow my view on this. My reasons for adult females are two fold, first by choosing one or the other and following it I have taken sexual dimorphism out of the issue when comparing types, second I choose females because they are somewhat easier to catch in turtles, they bask more, come out of the water more, go into traps easier, hence it is a little more likely that anyone comparing freshwater turtle species will be looking at females. An equally valid argument can be made in snakes, for example, to set males as holotypes since hemipene morphology is an important diagnostic character. But this is all preference, entirely up to the person working on the group. The only compulsory part under the ICZN Code is that a holotype is set.

The name for the taxon is attached to this holotype so whatever that holotype turns out to be that is where the name goes. As I discussed in the Chelodina oblonga article a misidentified holotype is generally a difficult issue, often requiring the intervention of the ICZN. It will often mean that a name, well used and understood, is going to be moved to another species. All the previously published literature on that species will now be using the wrong name. This can create a lot of confusion, and believe it or not anger. It also in vertebrates such as reptiles creates legal issues, as many are protected by various local and international laws and agreements.

The part of all this that attaches the name to the holotype and determines if that name is available for use is nomenclature, and is governed by the ICZN Code. The term available has a very specific meaning in Nomenclature. It means that the name has been published in accordance with the ICZN Code and has sufficient details in the description to meet Articles 10 to 20 of the Code. So put simply this would mean the original description identifies a type specimen, provides diagnostic characters that claim to differentiate the taxon and is not an identical name to another species in the same genus. There are several other minor rules also and readers can look at Articles 10 to 20 of the code for themselves to see what a description needs to have. Feel free to ask me questions on this.

So if the name is available the next part is the taxonomy. The population represented by the holotype is demonstrated by acceptable means to be diagnosable different to other populations. This can be done with morphology, molecular work and statistics. I personally prefer to see all three. Now that is taxonomy, this is where the two connect through that holotype which is a part of the taxonomic analysis, and of course is attached to the name. Taxonomy and Nomenclature are separate fields, but are also intrinsically entwined in their practice. The taxonomy will produce, among other things, a synonymy and this is a list of the available names in order of Priority, that is, in order of usage by date of publication. The oldest name, is the one to be used for the taxon. Or a new one is proposed if there was none, and that leads back to nomenclature.

The Holotype is, therefore, the most important specimen of any species. If you go to a museum to examine specimens of a species you are working on you will soon see this. The way Holotypes are stored, and who has access to them, and the fact that they generally cannot be loaned out shows the higher level of importance placed on them. Many older names have problematic types. Many do not have one at all, or they may have a type series, called syntypes. This is because the concept of types came into zoology some 100 years after Linnaeus so early descriptions do not have them actually set. This is fine under the Code; it’s not fair to hold someone’s work to a set of rules that came into being over 100 years after they wrote the paper. However, it is important to try and identify which specimens were used in the description and this is one of the causes of confusion in nomenclature with older names.

If there is a series of syntypes and there is potential for confusion, eg more than one species represented by the syntypes (eg Chelodina expansa, Emydura victoriae are both in this position) a lectotype is often set. A lectotype is a specimen from the type series that has been determined to be the name-bearing type, that is, the one the name is actually attached to. This is done by a later author who is reviewing the issues. If a holotype is absent altogether and there is good reason to expect confusion, a neotype can be set. This is again a name-bearing type that is equivalent to a holotype and will now represent the name. Again this must be justified and done by a later author who is reviewing the problem at hand.

The one thing I will emphasize above all else, examination of the types.  If you want to publish a work naming a new species, or rearranging them significantly, you must examine all the relevant types. Many specimens in museums are misidentified, this is not their fault they have the label that the museum was given when they got them, this could be 50 or 100 years ago, even older. If you do not examine the types you cannot guarantee that a name is attached to the correct species.  The two examples I mentioned before; Chelodina expansa has two syntypes, one is a C. expansa, one is a C. longicollis; Emydura victoriae has two syntypes, one is an E. victoriae, one is an E. macquarii. In the end seriously, examine the types, after all do you want to be remembered for the species you named, or the mess you made?

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.