Describing a species: The “Best Practices” debate.

Southern New Guinea Stream Turtle. Photo by Arthur Georges.

Southern New Guinea Stream Turtle. Photo by Arthur Georges.

I have recently described my 6th turtle species which is pictured here. It is the Southern Stream Turtle, Elseya rhodini, from Southern New Guinea. This species was described in the journal Zootaxa, and its types have been placed in the Papua New Guinea National Museum in Port Moresby. It has been a while since I made a post this is largely because I have been traveling alot and had to do significant editing to complete the paper at the same time.

In any-case in recent years there has been considerable debate about the “Best Practices” for describing new species. In a previous post I discussed taxonomic vandalism and in short the presence of taxonomic vandalism has fueled the debate over this issue. In herpetology the big issue is not how many names someone produces, but how they are done. I myself do not care at all how many species a person does or has described. What matters is that the science of this has the necessary checkpoints to ensure accuracy, integrity and that the conclusions of the examination is within accepted (at the time) scientific theory and practices. Generally it is believed in science that the best way to do this is through peer review.

Peer review and editorial review are two completely different steps in this process. The editor of an article should never be the author of that article, if for no other reason than we tend to be blind to our own mistakes. We know what we mean so that’s what we see. In a large body of text you will miss your own typos and grammar issues. Getting all this right and the formatting is the editors job. Anyone with a good command of the language of publication can in theory edit an article. Peer review though means that the article’s science is checked by people who do know that field of science. The two peer reviewers of my recent description were both scientists who have themselves published new species papers, reviews of genera etc in the past. They know the science and what would be expected and I had little say in who did that, they were chosen by the editor. Hence the editor should not be an author.

The idea in the best practices debate is that because the ICZN rules do not dictate that Peer Review is a requirement that a best practice should be adopted to ensure this happens. The problem of course; who is the judge and jury on this? who decides if an article meets the standard? these are questions that are difficult to answer. One option that has been developed for a while now is the List of Predatory Standalone Journals, this list includes journals with no standing at a scholarly level and it is highly recommended that no nomenclatural acts should be published in them. This at least provides something people can use when deciding which journal to publish in. Another option is to look to where the most taxonomic works are being published these days and that would be the journal Zootaxa that I mentioned earlier. Certainly at present it would be the journal of choice for taxonomic works.

The upside of this debate is that if people wishing to describe taxa do follow this best practice a number of highly dubious issues can be avoided. First is ethics. Science has always assumed a code of ethics among practicing scientists and for the most part all have followed it for the last 150 years or so. There have and always will be exceptions. The ICZN code was written on the assumption that this generally accepted code of ethics would be largely followed. Unfortunately this has proven to be wrong. We now have published articles that make horrific accusations against people, we have academic theft and what is genuine narcissism  overriding any common sense. Peer review should be able to get rid of this. The next is that the science is done well and in an acceptable fashion so that the work is useful. Nothing worse than nomenclatural acts that instead of clarifying an issue actually make it worse. I have discussed some of these in the past (for example Emydura). The third of course is simply the polarizing effect of such poor quality work being published. This causes issues between those that will follow the ICZN code to the letter, vs those that want a bit of decent science in it also.

The best practice debate goes beyond fringe writers trying to force their views down the majority of scientists throats, ie their on a soapbox. Another issue in this is lack of supportive data for nomenclatural acts. You cannot look at the relationships of species without examining all the known species in a group. This includes both the living and the fossil species and requires comprehensive multidisciplinary datasets. Basically what this is saying is that it is fine to present a molecular phylogeny, but without inclusion of a morphological dataset, morphometrics and the extinct taxa if there are any, nomenclatural acts should never be made. There are too many cases in recent years now where changes to the nomenclature made just on Molecular grounds have proven to be incorrect once more data is added. These are other examples of best practices, and should be done.

Rapid and unnecessary change to the nomenclature is annoying, particularly to non taxonomists. Many people who are not taxonomists want stability, unfortunately they also do not know what that actually is. They think stability includes the combination, ie the genus + species, it does not. It actually means that the species name should remain stable because of the Principal of Priority, or the Genus name.  But there is no requirement for species to be kept in the same genus as much as possible. However, too much change causes management problems. So here again the peer review process can step in as a check point. Are the changes in an article justifiable, ie is there enough data to put everyone through the annoyance of the change. With the change though it is possible to be too conservative as well as too free with changes. Ultra conservatism in nomenclature is quite frankly a cause of extinction, because if species are not recognized, they are not protected. For evidence of this go through the criteria of listing in the IUCN Redlist, one very important consideration is high endemism. Conversely ultra freedom in nomenclature wastes conservation funding. A balance between the two must be achieved. Yet another opportunity for peer review to be a checkpoint.

In the end taxonomy is a multidisciplinary science, and unlike most others its acts cannot be undone. Hence it should never be done inadequately. It is a science that needs a checkpoint process such as peer review.


Taxonomic Publication, its abuse and misuse.

I guess it was inevitable that I would have to write on this subject. After all I am discussing reptile names and herpetology is one area that has suffered a history of what is generally called “taxonomic vandalism” sometimes “taxonomic terrorism” but whatever term you use, it is an unethical means of producing names solely for naming rights and self glorification.

I recently presented at a conference on this very topic and also have one paper published (Thomson, 2014) and another in press on this issue in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. This “vandalism” is an unfortunate area of nomenclature and taxonomy and one that is degrading to the science of Taxonomy, undermining the trust other branches of science may have in it. This is not unique to herpetology with various invertebrate groups and also fish suffering from the same problems.

First off lets look at why this is even an issue. In most science we can just ignore obvious bad science, although it can still do damage. The anti-vaccination debate is a prime example of this, not only was the original paper linking autism to vaccination bad science it was also false science, so scientists can ignore it, except that in this case it had already done considerable damage by creating an anti-vaccine movement who believed this original false paper to be true. In taxonomy however we have a problem and that is the Principal of Priority. This means that if a name is available and it is the oldest name for a particular valid taxon, then that is the name which must be used. Therefore if someone creates a group of names with no real idea if they really apply to valid taxa those that are eventually proved to do so, using good scientific methods, end up being used by sheer luck.

The Code was written under the premise that scientists always acted, for the most part, ethically, and a set of ethics are included in the code but only as an appendix, and therefore they are only recommendations. It did not occur to anyone back then that people would come along who would meet the Code at a bare minimum and would ignore the ethics of good science. People who would lie, steal the work of others and self publish for the sake of “naming rights”. Unfortunately such people do exist. In hindsight this shows a lack of foresight by the original authors of the code.

One case that has been completely dealt with was that of Wells and Wellington (1985). In their self-published paper they named some 600 taxa. These names were for Australian taxa only. They also did this in a time long before the internet and hence the damage was a little limited. However their actions did cause an uproar in Australia and the Australian Society of Herpetologists submitted a Case (No. 2531) to have this work, and another from 1983 by the same authors, declared unavailable for the purposes of nomenclature. Unfortunately the ASH correspondents stated that among their reasons for objecting was the taxonomic disruption the paper was causing and this led to the inevitable failure of the case. Both the proponents and those against Wells and Wellington had inadvertently agreed that this was a taxonomic issue. As I have mentioned in my previous posts the ICZN does not deal with taxonomic issues, only nomenclatural matters, so this left the ICZN little option but to refuse to rule on Case 2531 and leave it for taxonomists to sort out, as per their Opinion published in 1991. This also effectively declared the works as available publications, which meant the usage of each name had to be determined taxonomically, which has taken some 30 years to achieve.

One factor to consider with Richard Wells and Ross Wellington is that both are highly skilled herpetologists, particularly with snakes and lizards, and hence many of their taxonomic changes have proven to be correct, hence many of their names are in use.

The subject of my recent talk however was the journal Australasian Journal of Herpetology (AJH). This particular journal has a single author and editor and is privately published. It therefore goes against the best practices for taxonomy as recommended by a number of papers (eg. Kaiser et al, 2013; TTWG, 2007, and others). What these papers recommend, and most taxonomists abide by automatically, is that all papers making nomenclatural acts (naming species, re-combinations or synonymies) must be published through the legitimate recognised scientific peer-review process. This will reduce or prevent errors, ensure there is a good scientific underpinning to the changes and ensure they are accepted by all. It will also prevent offensive rhetoric being published in papers that should not do it.

The AJH has named some 730 (approx) taxa at various levels and most are highly contentious with many in the scientific community refusing to use them at all. The problem this causes is a dual nomenclature. Dual nomenclatures are very dangerous to science as it causes communication breakdown. In this particular case the author, although an experienced herpetoculturalist and natural history herpetologist of some repute with snakes, has moved beyond his own knowledge and started naming groups for which he has no demonstrated expertise, and he is using the published phylogenies of others and basically just names their clades. It is clear this is being done because some of the names closer to his expertise are probably accurate based on some personal knowledge, i.e. Australian snakes, but as he moves further afield: e.g. American and Asian turtles, crocodiles and American pit-vipers it is clear he has never examined these species because of the clear mistakes and errors in his papers. It is also clear he has never examined the types (name bearing specimens or species depending on level) and has not actually read all the pertinent literature. This is something I went to great lengths to explain is of importance in my earlier posts.

So what should be done about this? Well many years ago on I posted a statement. It was not original, I got it from turtle expert Peter Pritchard, and this is how it goes: “Refute or accept, there is no ignore in Taxonomy”. I still stand by that statement. There are names that I have refuted, and which have since overwritten. I declared a number of names unavailable for a variety of reasons under the Code and some of the taxa involved I have subsequently given names to, while others have also renamed species. In other words I refuted the availability of the names using the Code. This was presented in a paper by John Iverson, myself and Arthur Georges (2001). But its not so easy a task with the names in AJH as many of them are available for use, yet few people want to use them, hence the options proposed by Kaiser et al. (2013).

Most recently the stakes were raised by the author of AJH. He submitted a Case (No. 3601) to the ICZN regarding one of his generic names, Spracklandus. He hopes to have the generic name validated and with it the issue of AJH that contained the description, which by default could lead to the validation of the entire journal for nomenclatural acts. This clearly requires a response and a number of comments have been published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomeclature (BZN, the journal of the ICZN) while more forthcoming. It remains to be seen what will be done in this Case.

It is likely that no matter what happens the names in AJH will be ignored by the global herpetological community. This will lead to dual nomenclatures, and continued contention and confusion. It may in the end require the herpetologists of the world to come together to create what is known as a LAN (List of Available Names) under Article 79 of the Code. In this process a world recognised body can create a list of accepted names and submit it to the ICZN to be recognised. Under a LAN any unaccepted names can be thrown out and effectively made unavailable.

Whatever the solution as you can see, poor science is hard to ignore in Nomenclature. It is therefore imperative that you all understand the take home message of this post. Taxonomic works must go through the full peer-review in a high quality journals that specialise in taxonomy, for example Zootaxa.

To name it? Or not to?

I was recently sent a pdf of a paper that I found both highly interesting but also presented some nomenclatural difficulties on interpretation. The paper is on a new lizard species produced in a lab as a second generation parthenogenic form that was the result of hybridization (Cole et al. 2014). First I think the results are fascinating and the results of the experiments are a worthy addition to science. However, what is not so clear is whether or not this should have been named as a new species. Parthenogenesis is reproduction, effectively cloning, in single sexed populations of an organism. It is rare in vertebrates but a number of reptiles do this. But those results have nothing to do with nomenclature. Here I am just looking at the nomenclatural decision to name it. I must reiterate as I have mentioned before, I cannot make nomenclatural acts in a blog, so I am making no changes to the taxonomy here. That is for those working on these species to do and publish appropriately.

In their paper Cole et al. (2014) cite the Code, Article 1.3.3, as prohibiting the naming of hybrids, and further they refer to Article 17.3, where parthenogenetic forms are not excluded by the code. They use this as justification for the naming of this form. This is correct the code does state this but it states a few other things as well. I am using this as an example of interpretation of the code. It is written in words in both French and English, hence it does take some careful consideration when reading it.

To interpret the code you must look at the entirety of a sentence, and you must follow through its links to other parts of the code. You must also consider all possible sections that may apply to the given situation. For example this form was produced in a lab is it a hypothetical form? If it is article 1.3.1 would apply, also excluding it from being named. However, I think the authors could argue successfully against that and I would agree with them. The main section of the code that does apply to this scenario is article 1.3.3 so we need to look at it in its entirety; there are 7 parts to article 1.3 I will only list the relevant ones. I am presenting both the French and English versions here, some people insist on using both, though to me in this case they read the same.

1.3. Exclusions. Sont exclus des dispositions du Code les noms propsés

1.3.3. pour des spécimens hybrides nommés comme tels; [pour les taxons d’origine hybride, voir Art 17.2;]

1.3. Exclusions. Excluded from the provisions of the Code are names proposed

1.3.3. for hybrid specimens as such (for taxa which are of hybrid origin see Article 17.2);

Basically article 1.3 is dealing with forms that are excluded from nomenclature, that is cannot be named. Article 1.3.3 is including hybrids in this list and forms of hybrid origin. The important words here are hybrid origin. This form is an F2 generation from a hybrid origin. So this would seem to state that because the parthenogenic form arose because of a hybrid cross in its recent lineage that it is precluded from being named. You need to then follow through to article 17.2 of the code which states:

17.2. it is applied to a taxon known, or later found, to be of hybrid origin (see also Article 23.8); or

17.3. it is based on only part of an animal, or one sex, or one stage in the life cycle, or one of several dissimilar generations, or one morph or caste of a polymorphic species, or a parthenogenetic form, or a specimen which is an unusual example of the taxon (for exclusions see Articles 1.3 and 45.6).

Certainly parthenogenic forms can be named as is outlined in 17.3, but this is referring to wild forms of unknown heritage, if hybrid origin is known it is still precluded by 1.3.3. It is quite possible that those species of reptiles that have parthenogenesis in the wild got there by hybridization events in their history, it is also possible there are other factors involved. Each case would have to be tested. But for this case, it is known that it is from hybridization, the offspring, including the clones of the offspring are still hybrids and should be referred to as such.

Although not actually required by the code, though it is a recommendation, this form also has no type locality. How can a form that only occurs in a laboratory have one? My personal view is that much like the process of domestication, human created forms of other species, be it through hybridization or selective breeding or even other means should not be appearing in the zoological record of the species on this planet. That should be reserved for the species that have occurred naturally. Taxonomy and the Nomenclature that supports it are used to conserve, protect etc the species in their natural environments. As I have said I think the experiments that developed this form and what it tells us about evolution etc is brilliant. But it does not need a formal name to do all that.

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.