Field of Science

Thoughts Inspired by a Private Publication

A number of sources, including this message on the DML archive, drew my attention yesterday to the existence of a recent online publication proposing a new North American sauropod species 'Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus', as well as synonymising a whole slew of other familiar dinosaur taxa (such as Apatosaurus and Diplodocus) under the relatively unfamiliar name Amphicoelias. Quite apart from 'Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus' perhaps being the most intensely unaesthetic name ever proposed for a dinosaur (and this in a field including such wince-inducing monikers as Raptorex and Tyrannotitan!), the pdf has once again lifted the lid on a number of arguments that have been simmering away for some time now. I recommend reading the responses to the DML message linked to above, as well as Mike Taylor's discussion at SV-POW. I'm not in a position to discuss the technical details of the 'brontodiplodocus' pdf itself but I would like to discuss some of the broader issues raised by it, the questions of regulating publication and of publications based on privately owned specimens.

It should be noted that the 'brontodiplodocus' pdf currently appears to be an online document only and hence not validly published in the view of the ICZN (and whatever its publication status, there is no obligation on anyone else to accept the proposed synonymies). However, Mike Taylor has pointed out that it would be a simple matter for the publishers of the document to produce it in printed form and thereby validate it. Also, it would be easy for a non-expert in taxonomic procedure (and even a few supposed experts in taxonomic procedure) to mistake the current pdf for a valid publication as it is. As I've noted before, end-users of taxonomy should not be required to consider ICZN esoterica every time they are presented with a new name, just as non-specialist computer users should not always have to familiarise themselves with thousands of lines of computer code before using a new word-processing programme.

While self-publication of poor-quality works has always been a potential issue for taxonomy and the ICZN, modern technology has made self-publication much easier than before. It can now pontentially be done by anyone with access to a word processor of some form: i.e. pretty much everyone in the developed world and a large number of people in the developing world. Some have suggested that, to counteract this issue, only names published in peer-reviewed journals should be accepted as valid (I've pointed out why I disagree with this proposal in an earlier post). Others have suggested taking this even further and establishing a single journal for the publication of all zoological taxonomy. This is already the method used by the Prokaryote Code of Nomenclature, which requires that all new bacterial taxa be published or validated in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. However, it is debatable whether such a model could be applied to the ICZN. Firstly, the sheer number of new zoological names published each year is much higher than the number of bacterial names, perhaps by a few orders of magnitude. A single zoological taxonomic journal would be a major undertaking, especially for an organisation such as the ICZN which lacks any major sources of funding on which to draw. Secondly, the Prokaryote Code of Nomenclature has very high basic requirements for a taxon to be considered published (such as deposition of cultures of the type strain in two separate collections in separate countries). It is unlikely that the ICZN would be able to implement such across-the-board requirements because it deals with a much broader range of organism types (such as fossils and protozoans) than the bacterial code, each of which may have their own specialised requirements for appropriate typification.

In addition, one of the reasons that prokaryote nomenclature functions so well under these restrictions is the usage of a wide range of what might be called 'grey taxa', taxa widely regarded as recognisable but which, for various reasons (most commonly their inability to date to be cultured in the laboratory), cannot be 'validly' published (one such taxon that I've previously discussed is the minute 'Nanoarchaeum equitans'). Bacterial nomenclature therefore has two distinct nomenclatural classes of taxa. This is not necessarily a problem: 'grey taxa' cannot compete for priority with 'valid taxa', for instance, which reduces the chance of an old poorly-characterised name supplanting a newer familiar one.

The current version of the ICZN does allow in Article 79 for the potential publication of Lists of Available Names for selected taxa. Under this article, a list could be published of (for instance) all published bird names that would become the definitive listing for that group. Any names published prior to the list's end-date that were not included are regarded as unavailable (and hence not competing for priority with names included in the list), even if they normally would be under the general rules of the code (the Prokaryote Code followed this path with the publication of the Approved Lists that were the foundation of current bacterial nomenclature). To date, I am not aware of any such list being successfully ratified by the ICZN (it would not be a simple process), but the facility is potentially there. At present, the Lists of Available Names are only intended to clarify the status of previously published names rather than regulate any published subsequent to the relevant list. However, even if it is not currently feasible to introduce a single journal model for all zoological nomenclature, perhaps it could be done for specific groups? Imagine if a List of Available Names could be published for (say) dinosaurs, with a requirement that all subsequent names be validated by a prominent journal such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology? (On the flipside, there would have to be a requirement that the journal must validate all names that meet certain pre-existing requirements [as currently exists for the IJSEM] in order to prevent names being refused for reasons unrelated to the diagnosability of the taxa concerned, such as personal disputes between taxonomists.) If done on a group-by-group basis, such a process might also allow for workers in each group to determine the appropriate requirements for that group.

The second major issue raised by the 'Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus' pdf is that its publishers are commercial fossil dealers and at some point the brontodiplocus 'holotype' may (probably will) be privately sold. The ICZN currently recommends, but does not require, that the type material for new taxa be deposited in publicly accessible collections. If a specimen is privately held, it is less likely to be available for study by future researchers (however, it is worth noting that a privately held specimen is not always unavailable, nor is a specimen in a public collection necessarily available). In the case of fossils, some people are of the opinion that their commercial sale should be banned completely in order to prevent scientifically significant material from entering private hands. However, not all fossil material is scientifically significant—some fossils are extremely abundant (to the extent that some localities have profitable fossil mines) and there would seem to be little sense in banning the sale of a fossil species for which thousands are already held in public collections. If the possibility is floated of only banning the sale of 'scientifically significant' specimens, we run afoul of the problem of specifying how to determine which specimens are scientifically significant. For instance, articulated Tyrannosaurus skeletons are very rare and of great scientific interest, but isolated Tyrannosaurus teeth are very common (or so I've heard) and of little scientific interest. Where exactly does one draw the line?

Type specimens, however, are by definition of scientific interest, and it is usually clear whether a specimen is a type. So while it would be somewhat ridiculous to ban the commercial sale of all fossils, perhaps it would be reasonable to preclude the commercial sale of type material? Note that I am not suggesting banning the use of privately held material in describing taxa, only that such material could not be subsequently traded*. I can think of two potential issues that might have to be considered in such a scenario. One is that commercial collectors may refuse to allow any examination of material that they hold by researchers to prevent its effective devaluation (of course, some may not see this as a problem). Another potential problem would be if a privately owned specimen is made part of the type material of a new species without the informed consent and/or involvement of the specimen's owner.

*The distinction between privately and publicly owned specimens is a lot fuzzier than those working outside the taxonomic field might expect. Many new species are described by authors on the basis of specimens they have themselves collected; while the authors may intend on eventually depositing the specimens in a public collection, this may not have yet happened at the time of publication. Depending on circumstances, it may be some time before the specimen(s) are finally passed on to the collection**.

**To give an example from my own experience, two years ago I published the new harvestman species Templar incongruens based on two specimens previously held at the Western Australian Museum that had been collected in Canterbury, New Zealand. It was decided that the new types should be transferred to the Canterbury Museum as it seemed more appropriate for them to be held in a collection in their home country, and this was the depository recorded in the publication. However, because T. incongruens has also formed part of my phylogenetic analysis of Monoscutidae currently in preparation, the specimens have not yet actually made it to Canterbury: they're still sitting in my lab here in Perth.


  1. Thanks for this analysis, Christopher. You may be interested in Henry Galiano's comment over on the SV-POW! article:

  2. FYI, the putative SVPOW link actually goes to the "brontodiplocus" page.

    "Thunder double beam", BTW? WTF?

  3. You see? The name is so horrid I can't even spell it! "brontodiplodocus"

  4. Okay, now I want to draw a picture of something called a "double thunder beam". That just anime written all over it.

  5. Not to mention the perverse incentives at work. How many useless species names might we get when dealers realize they increase the saleable value of specimens by making them types?


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