Tag 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.


The Macquarie River Turtle, too many names and the need for a better way.

In this next piece I am going to look at the names that have proliferated around the Murray River Turtle (Emydura macquarii) and its near relatives. This particular Australian turtle has proven very difficult to establish a decent nomenclature for with many names proliferated over the years. To the point I was recently asked when the name Emydura signata was used “how many times do we have to sink it” sometimes I do wonder that.

For many years the understanding of the relationships in Australian turtles was at best poorly known, but more accurately was a bunch of basket cases. For both living and fossil species Emydura was one of the basket cases. Anything that was not a long-neck (Chelodina) was basically assumed to be an Emydura. Nearly every Australian Chelid fossil that could be identified as a short neck has at some time been in this genus. Every river and color morph of the genus was its own species. This is saying something in Australia as the turtles there are rather grey to black in color with little else in the way of color. Only real exception to this is the Painted Turtle (Emydura subglobosa) and the members of Myuchelys.

Nomenclature is not science, taxonomy is science and there is a difference. So to truly understand and appreciate a nomenclatural problem you do have to go over its entire history. So like in the previous piece I wrote on Chelodina, we need to visit that history.

The first time the species was named was as Emys macquarii by Georges Cuvier in 1829 however this name is seen as a nomen nudum under the ICZN Code, so it is the second time it was named, as Chelys (Hydraspis) macquarii, which stands by John Edward Gray in 1830. Just one year later in 1831 Gray again named the species as Hydraspis macquarrii, this one may have been what in nomenclature is referred to as lapsus pro, or in error, but we cannot be sure. Next in 1835 it was the turn of André Marie Constant Duméril and Gabriel Bibron to try, they called it Platemys macquaria, again it is possible this was an error but it is not possible to know.

In 1836 Carlo Luciano Bonaparte named the genus Emydura and it could be hoped that at least the generic placement of this species may have stabilized at this point, not at all. Many people place the name Emydura australis in the list at this point, described by John Edward Gray in 1841. The holotype of Emydura australis is actually what we would currently call the Red-faced TurtleEmydura victoriae, a potential nomenclatural issue for the future. Up to this point it has actually been fairly straight forward. But it was about to take many twists and turns.

Throughout the 1870’s John Edward Gray got very prolific coining the names Chelymys krefftii, Euchelymys sulcifera, Chelymys victoriae marmorata and Chelymys victoriae sulcata. It makes one wonder how many times you can name the same species. Other names to come along were Emydura signata by Ernst Ahl in 1932; Emydura canni by Eric Worrell in 1970; then Chelymys cooki, Chelymys johncanni, Chelymys windorah and Tropicochelymys insularis by Richard Wells and Ross Wellington in 1985. The proliferation of names for this species continued with Emydura macquarii binjing, Emydura macquarii dharra, Emydura macquarii gunabarra and Emydura macquarii dharuk by John Cann in 1998. Lastly, John Cann, Bill McCord and Joseph-Uoni named Emydura macquarii emmotti and Emydura macquarii nigra.

This major list of names is in the end all for a single species, Emydura macquarii. However it is correct to point out that at different times it has been considered to be more than one species. Throughout the period of the 1970’s to the 1990’s  Emydura macquarii, Emydura krefftii and Emydura signata were widely recognized as separate species, with no evidence to demonstrate that actually existing. However from the 1990’s on it became more and more clear that this was in fact a wide ranging single species. Starting with the allozyme work of Arthur Georges and Mark Adams followed by molecular analysis, and better morphological work. During this period it was also discovered that there were a number of populations of Emydura in coastal rivers in New South Wales, reportedly all the way to Sydney. The latter is however an introduced population which is largely made up of released Krefft’s and Macquarie Turtles. The Hunter River is the most southerly natural population on the NSW coast.

The next step in sorting this massive set of names out was how they were distributed, which ones were valid and getting a sensible taxonomy for this species complex. This was initially done by Hal Cogger and eventually Arthur Georges and I completed it. It was clear that despite all being the same species 4 highly distinctive populations could be seen; Macquarie, Coastal Queensland, Cooper Creek and Fraser Island. It was also necessary to determine valid names and a number of them were declared nomen nudem by either Hal Cogger or by John Iverson, myself and Arthur Georges across a number of publications.

The last thing was to determine the oldest available name for the 4 populations to be recognized and these were as follows:

Macquarie River Turtle Emydura macquarii macquarii (Gray, 1830)

Krefft’s Turtle Emydura macquarii krefftii (Gray, 1871)

Cooper Creek Turtle Emydura macquarii emmotti Cann, McCord, and Joseph-Ouni, 2003

Fraser Island Short-necked Turtle Emydura macquarii nigra McCord, Cann, and Joseph-Ouni 2003

All the other names listed above are either nomen nudum or nomen novum, hence unavailable or invalid. I would refer readers to the most comprehensive checklist for living turtles; the IUCN Checklist in this you can see the full synonymy with explanations and full references.

Nomenclatural Confusion but with a good Result

For my discussions on nomenclature in reptiles I thought it would be best that I start off with a group I know well, the turtles of the family Chelidae. I am not going to discuss an overly controversial issue here but it is one that caused significant confusion for a while. Thankfully it is settling well now.

Within the turtle genus Chelodina there are three subgenera, Chelodina, Macrochelodina and Macrodiremys. Up until 2010 the subgenera were variably considered genera, and may be again at some point, or were ignored altogether. However this discussion is about several of the species in this genus and on this occasion I will be mostly ignoring the subgenera, suffice it to say the two species under discussion are the South Western Snake-necked Turtle, Chelodina (Macrodiremys) colliei, and the Northern Snake-necked Turtle, Chelodina (Macrochelodina) oblonga. This is the currently correct names for both of these species and I would refer readers to the IUCN Checklist for any nomenclatural clarification.

While examining all the holotypes for the Australasian Chelid Turtles (Chelodininae) I examined the types for the species Chelodina oblonga as it was known in 2000, that is the South Western Snake-necked Turtle. To my surprise at the time I found that the holotype was in fact a Northern Snake-necked Turtle. In nomenclature a misidentified holotype is a major problem. The name goes with the type, and the type is linked to a population. This is how nomenclature works. So following a strict reading of the code it was probable that the name Chelodina oblonga would need to be the valid name for the Northern Snake-necked Turtle, and the name Chelodina colliei would have to be resurrected for the South-western Snake-necked Turtle. With nearly 30 years of publications having it wrong confusion was inevitable.

I published my results so they would be available to all in the literature and at the time asked for everyone to utilize the ICZN code, Article 82.1, and maintain prevailing usage (Thomson, 2000). Unfortunately many did not follow this recommendation and hence the name Chelodina colliei was resurrected by some, while Chelodina rugosa was continued to be used at the same time.  It also became apparent that this caused a potential issue for the name Macrochelodina (Wells and Wellington, 1985) who had intended to name what was often referred to as the Chelodina “B” group of species, such as Chelodina expansa, Chelodina parkeri, etc. However they had set the type species of Macrochelodina as Chelodina oblonga, this presented a conflict of intent so we as reviewers in a paper in 2001 fixed this issue by assigning Chelodina rugosa as the type species (Iverson et al., 2001).

A little history now is needed to get a greater understanding of how this happened in the first place. Both species were described by John Edward Gray of the British Museum over a century ago, he clearly diagnosed the two species, and clearly knew what he was doing. An area of confusion is that Gray listed Chelodina oblonga as coming from Western Australia, but this was in 1841; Western Australia back then was more or less everything from the modern Queensland border and westwards. Queensland was of course at the time part of New South Wales.

Following Gray’s descriptions was a series of poorly thought out synonymies. George Albert Boulenger thought that Chelodina colliei and Chelodina oblonga were the same species and so the younger name became a junior synonym. In 1890 James Douglas Ogilby named the species Chelodina rugosa and it too was synonymized with Chelodina oblonga. Then in 1901 Franz Werner named the species Chelodina siebenrocki, which was again synonymized with Chelodina oblonga by Frederic Siebenrock. So basically a great number of species were under the banner of Chelodina oblonga and it now had a range from Perth in Western Australia, up through the Kimberley across northern Australia and into Southern New Guinea. For over 60 years this was how this turtle was viewed.

Andrew Burbidge in his 1967 thesis felt that the south western turtle was not the same species and he restricted the name Chelodina oblonga to it, in error, as did John Goode. They also resurrected the name Chelodina siebenrocki but this was quickly seen to be an error and the name Chelodina rugosa became the name for the Northern Snake-neck Turtle. From 1974 until 2006 this situation remained constant. At that time I petitioned the ICZN to conserve the name Chelodina rugosa over the name Chelodina oblonga (Thomson, 2006). In the end this petition failed, due to several reasons. First is the uncertainty of the taxonomy of what had at the time become known as Chelodina rugosa, another was uncertainty due to an attempt in a hobbyist magazine, Reptilia, to fix the issue in a way that cannot be done under the ICZN Code (this same attempt also by accident erected a new species called Chelodina oblonga that is a junior synonym of Chelodina colliei). When there is an existing holotype only the ICZN can set a neotype. There were also misunderstandings over the meaning of Western Australia.

The final ruling came down in 2013 from the ICZN and it now became necessary to fix the whole situation. The ruling was to follow the Principal of Priority.  I will be honest this was my own preferred position from the outset and I was grateful that the ICZN made this decision. Many people had tried to influence what I did about this situation and my proposal in the end was an act of conciliation. In the months following the decision we used as many online tools as we could to establish the name reversal, to prevent the confusion. Hence the IUCN Checklist, Wikipedia and the Reptile Database were all utilized. Our objective was to make this easy for all.

Hence at the present time the correct names for the two species in full are as follows:

Northern Snake-necked Turtle : Chelodina (Macrochelodina) oblonga Gray, 1841

South-western Snake-necked Turtle : Chelodina (Macrodiremys) colliei Gray, 1856

The species Chelodina (Macrochelodina) oblonga is a composite, it may or may not contain more than one species in it. There is evidence there are differences but this has not as yet been fully researched. The species is very complicated. However within it at present are Chelodina oblonga from the Northern Territory, Australia; Chelodina rugosa from Cape York, Australia; and Chelodina siebenrocki from New Guinea. The latter two of these are currently invalid species, so there is no such species as Chelodina (Macrochelodina) siebenrocki at this time.