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Taxonomy based on science is necessary for global conservation: PLoS Bio 2018. Rebuttal of “Taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation” in Nature.

WikiSpecies LogoIn an article appearing in PLoS Biology on 14 March 2018, 184 taxonomists from 37 countries have written of their concerns regarding a recent proposal to radically overhaul the way in which animals and plants are named and defined.

The proposal, detailed in an article in the journal Nature by Stephen T. Garnett and Les Christidis, argues that traditional approaches to classifying biodiversity are seriously undermining conservation efforts. They propose that, unlike other scientific disciplines where hypotheses are proposed and tested free of external governance, taxonomic hypotheses should be subject to uniform guidelines and international governance. Under their plan, non-scientists with a stake in the consequences of taxonomic change – such as lawyers, anthropologists, and sociologists – would compose an international governing body charged with minimizing disruptions that arbitrary or poorly justified taxonomic changes can cause to conservation efforts. Species are fundamental units of life and their reliable naming and definition are critical to the scientists and managers who study and conserve biodiversity. Species conservation – including management of the plants and animals on which humans depend – requires a clear understanding of what species are and what distinguishes them from each other. Taxonomic clarity is also essential to legislation mandating which species are protected. Globally, inaccurate and imprecise species descriptions lead to mismanaging fisheries, squandering conservation resources, and protecting the wrong species.

Currently, as species extinction is accelerating and many species ranges are declining, an estimated 85% of terrestrial and 90% of marine species remain unnamed. In a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times (, famed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson rightly characterizes this as a major issue for humanity. The global taxonomic community is concerned that non-scientific governance would decrease taxonomic precision and retard taxonomic progress when it urgently needs to be accelerated. Critics of the Garnett and Christidis plan assert that because species are not fixed entities, but rather living, evolving groups of organisms, the species definition process must remain flexible and open to incorporating new data to be as precise as possible. They believe that taxonomic discovery, as with other scientific endeavors, advances most quickly and efficiently through iterative hypothesis testing, peer review, and internally refereed consensus regarding the validity of taxonomic proposals.

Link to the paper at PLoS Bio:

Citation: Thomson SA, Pyle RL, Ahyong ST, Alonso-Zarazaga M, Ammirati J, Araya JF, et al. (2018) Taxonomy based on science is necessary for global conservation. PLoS Biol 16(3): e2005075.


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.

Nomenclatural Stability – What this really means.

Elseya branderhorsti. Photo by Arthur Georges

Elseya branderhorsti. Photo by Arthur Georges

I see a lot of discussion about stability. In particular people arguing that name changes should not be made on the grounds of stability. That genera or species should not be split on the grounds of Stability. The argument as to whether or not these splits should occur is a taxonomic one, whether species should be moved to other genera is a taxonomic one. Stability has no place in this argument.

The argument generally, as an example, goes that it is inconvenient to split the genus because it causes detachment to the prior literature. In my experience this is actually an over-inflated non-issue, generally being bantered as an excuse not to use their real reason which is that they just do not wish to change the name. This came up repeatedly in discussions recently on the splitting of the genus Anolis and in the past has come up over the genus Rana. As I said whether or not there is a case to split or not to split either of those genera is taxonomic and should be based on science, not dogma.

This argument is also unequally applied, which further discredits this entire argument. When people split Bothrops, or Emydura up, no one cared, same goes for Typhlops and many other genera. Why because it really does not matter. Yet when its suggested for Rana or Anolis we have heated debate which constantly descends into non scientific, dogmatic viewpoints. This is about politics, not science, it’s not even nomenclature.

So how does Stability apply here. It does not and that is my point. Before people argue for stability of nomenclature they should probably figure out what it is. Stability is actually referring to the maintenance of prevailing usage. In particular, as examples, it refers to names that have been forgotten for whatever reason, generally referred to as nomen oblitum, or possibly names of unclear taxa (nomen dubium) for which new information becomes available.

The idea is basically that if a name has not been used since 1899 or has not appeared in at least 50 articles in 10 different journals in the last 50 years, then the name is forgotten and prevailing usage then permits us to reverse the priority (effectively ignoring the Principal of Priority) and continue to use the younger and far better known younger name. So this is just about names, ie two synonymous species names or two synonymous genus names. Where an older, available, but unused name is not used in favor of a younger name. It has nothing to do with which species goes with which genus, referred to as the combination, as that is a taxonomic decision.

So what about the combination then is there any valid reason to protect it? Not under nomenclature. The ICZN Code has no say in this and should not, it goes beyond their mandate of only dealing with nomenclature and leaving taxonomy to taxonomists. However I will depart a little and express a view on this.

To me whether to split or lump should be based on the science, ie the phylogeny. Yes it is a subjective decision somewhat where one will name clades and where they will not, with regards to genera. As many authors have differing opinions on this and there are many species and several genus concepts about there is bound to be disagreement on this. What I disagree with though is having the a-priori view of not splitting on the grounds only of the inconvenience it may cause. People should be cautious for sure but if a better and more useful nomenclature for a group involves splitting a genus, and evidence for this is presented, then it should be possible to do it. I do not agree that paraphyly is the only reason for splitting genera.

The paraphyly argument is frequently brought up, this is where a clades immediate ancestor clade, with the same name, has another named clade in its descendants. This is not permitted in taxonomy, and correctly so, all I am saying is this is not the only reason for splitting.

Well that is a little about stability, it is a nomenclatural concept and has no place in taxonomy or conservation. I have frequently stated that you must separate taxonomy and nomenclature into its separate issues when confronting issues in the names of species. This one is a specific case of where this is important.

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.

The Eastern Water Dragon, nomenclatural confusion and poor quality.

For many people the Eastern Water Dragon has long been identified as Physignathus lesueurii a name combination that goes back to John Edward Gray’s work of 1845 (Amey et al., 2012). While in the genus Physignathus it shared that position with the type species of the genus the Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus concincinus). Andrew Amey, Patrick Couper and Glenn Shea (2012) detail the long nomenclatural history of this species and other relevant species and genera and their paper can be downloaded here. So I will not revisit the entire history. Suffice it to say that with the genus Physignathus being shown to be paraphyletic, and the type species being P. concincinus there is no alternative but to put the Eastern Water Dragon elsewhere.

This particular post is a further demonstration of the type concept, but this time for genera. I am using this example because it would seem to be fairly well resolved now. In my previous post I was largely referring to types for species, in genera there is a type species, again wherever the type goes the name goes. So with P. concincinus being the type species of Physignathus it is the only species that has to go with that name, any species included in the genus alongside it must be related to it and the group must be monophyletic.

This is why various other names listed by Amey et al. (2012) are not available for the Eastern Water Dragon. Genera such as Istiurus originally described by Georges Cuvier in 1829 but for only a single species, I. amboinensis, and that species is hence the type species for Istiurus, by what is known as monotypy. If a genus is described with only one species, that species is its type species. This cannot be changed and since the genus Hydrosaurus was resurrected for the Sailfin Lizard this makes the genus Istiurus a junior synonym of Hydrosaurus, as explained by Amey et al. (2012). So this is another genus that cannot be used for the Eastern Water Dragon.

In the end it comes to the name Intellagama described by Richard Wells and Ross Wellington in 1985 as the oldest available name for the genus containing the Eastern Water Dragon (as Intellagama lesueurii). The difficulty with this name is not that it was not declared or published. Although there have been many criticisms of Wells and Wellington (1985) including a challenge to its validity to the ICZN it is a valid publication. This is because the ICZN deemed the issues with the publication to be taxonomic, not nomenclatural. As I have already pointed out earlier the ICZN only deals with nomenclature. So the publication is to be accepted but not necessarily all the names within it. Amey et al. (2012) point out that this genus has mostly been seen as a junior synonym of Physignathus mainly because it was not diagnosed from the Chinese Water Dragon.

Here is a point on the major difficulty in nomenclature. The types of information presented in a description matters. It is important to name a type species for generic descriptions.  It is true that if the named genus is monotypic then the only species in it is inferred as the type species, but otherwise it must be named. It is also important to diagnose it appropriately with a significant amount of evidence from its related genera. Just as you would with a species. This can be as a revision of previously published work or  done in the description.

The difficulty in the case here was that the genus Intellagama was not diagnosed from the genus containing the Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus), this did not make the name unavailable but made it unclear how to use it, so it was put in synonymy. It was not until a paper by Townsend et al. (2011) that the usage and justification for the genus was published. It is important to note here that although the name was originally coined by Wells and Wellington (1985) that the evidence that it was actually a genus, and how the name was to be used was not defined until 2011.

It is for this reason that as has been pointed out by many recent authors when discussing a variety of issues in taxonomy and nomenclature that the preferred best practice for the erection of new names is through the peer reviewed journals in this way it can be hoped that mistakes and unclear names can be avoided.