Morpho-typing

Stuart G. Poss sgposs at WHALE.ST.USM.EDU
Wed May 21 17:44:10 CDT 1997


Una Smith wrote:
>

>...

> What if there is no appropriate species name?  Don't some estimates of
> global biodiversity indicate that only a small fraction of all species
> have been described?  And what of the many inadequate, utterly useless
> descriptions that are part of the formal taxonomic record?  I'd rather
> use a morphotype than muddy the taxonomy even further by assigning new
> specimens to bad species.
>

Its seems to me that you are making a strong scientific argument for
more direct involvement of competant taxonomists as an essential
component of studies in biodiversity and resource management,
particularly for invertebrate and microbial groups and also for use and
development of technologies that will faciliate the identification
process and examination of type specimens.

However, if I understood your original posting correctly, you also
seemed to imply a virtue to a weaker argument for a semi-formal parallel
system of nomenclature as opposed to a pre-nomenclatural phase of the
traditional investigative paradigm.  It is to this point that my commens
are directed.  What you seem to describe is a procedure to create large
collection backlogs, so that other legitimate scientific questions can
be asked, without the need to fully address the question of the accuracy
of identification.  While certainly borne of practical necessity in the
short term, and Dr. Ivie provides a very clear example, I fail to see
how such a nomenclatural system precludes the ultimate scientific need
for accurate identification, particularly when such a system is not
constrained by formal rules defining the circumstances such names can be
appropriately applied.

You are quite correct in asserting that we need to quickly study
biodiversity in many regional ecosystems, particularly in tropical
systems where diversity is greatest and where it is likely being lost
most quickly.  You are also correct in recognizing that poor
descriptions and invalid taxa complicate the nomenclatural process.
Nevertheless, at some point in these efforts, it essential that accurate
identifications be made, irrespective of whether taxonomic names
presently exist for these species.

However, it is not reasonable to suppose that chronically underfunded
and understaffed taxonomic and museum communities can indefinitely
assume the financial burden for this activity at some point in the
future in the perhaps vain hope of assuring the scientific merit of the
work in question.  It needs to be built into the work being funded as an
essential component of scientific studies where taxonomy and
identification are at issue.  Perhaps this might also be included into
what Dr. Laferriere refers to when he speaks of responsibility.

If I understand what is being advocated as the morpho-type approach to
nomenclatural issues, there would be some indefinite period of time
during which some sort of indirect reference to a species, species
complex, etc., such as "morph A of Smith, 1997", would exist in print.
Such an approach has been sucessfully used informally in ichthyology to
avoid the premature creation of unecessary names.  I suspect it is
commonly used in many other disciplines in which practical
considerations preclude complete or accurate identification in a timely
fashion.

Unfortuantely, it is only an informal device, there are no rules to
assure that references are consistently made, and is not without its
problems.  As long as these references relate back to cataloged material
that can be retained until the appropriate name (quite possible new and
quite possibly several rather than one name, one of which might perhaps
happily become Aus smithii) can be assigned, there is no "ultimate"
nomenclatural problem.  However, if these specimens sit as uncataloged
backloged material in collections, especially small ones not tied to
curatorial staff, or large ones whose staff is too small to adequately
care for all the materials in their care, then there is considerable
danger that the mapping between specimen and "name" will be lost along
with the value of any conclusions drawn from them.  At least when a
species is described, even if incorrectly, types are usually afforded
some special curation.  One can hardly expect signficant fractions of
new material to equally treated to avoid potential future nomenclatural
problems, particularly when there would be no mechanism to assure that
the status of "potential MS types in limbo" is to be designated.
Probably not a signficant problem in most cases, unless the morphotyping
approach to nomenclature becomes widely adopted.

Irrespective of the rationale used to obtain the funds to conduct
studies predicated on sampling biodiversity or the inadequacy of the
funds at hand to address all pertinent taxonomic issues, there comes a
point in time when it is necessary to determine just what is morph A of
Smith, 1997 is, if the merit of other scientific conclusions drawn about
it are to be evaluated and provided with any credence.  I believe that
such surveys would benefit, if as little time as practical passes before
addressing this critical question.  Both taxonomists and those pursuing
management related biodiversity studies need to work together more
closely to insure that practical necessities and scientific complexities
don't short circuit a system of nomenclature and scientific reasoning
based upon the use of this nomenclature.  Perhaps funding agencies and
grant reviewers would do well to contemplate how this could be better
done with limited resources.  Dave Chesmore's point is well taken and
one of the reasons many have begun to resort to technological solutions
(to toot my own horn see
http://www.ims.usm.edu/~musweb/lasermeasure.html as but one example).

While some might argue that systematists should act sufficiently
contrite for failing to have all the world's species identified at this
point, it is hardly useful to attempt to assign blame to systematists,
particularly the coleopterists, for "not having their act together".  It
is simply a reality that taxonomists and non-taxonomists alike have to
deal with.  It is a reality that will not appreciably change if the tact
is taken that somehow we should broadly encourage workers to adopt the
loosely defined concept of morphotyping as a nomenclatural system,
thereby skirting or postponing the issue of accurate identification
through the use of this nomenclatural artifice.

As an informal temporay device to refer to taxa, I don't see how we can
do without it.  Nonetheless, can we realistically presume that we have
somehow learned enough about biodiversity through its use to inform
other scientists about the biology of these taxa or resource managers on
how to make wise decisions without fully understanding what taxa we are
dealing with?  Might it not be better to make scientifically defensible
arguments, say with regard to grasshopper control, based on a sample of
species we seem to have some knowledge of rather than less well defined
arguments about a great many species that we have little or no direct
knowledge?  Shouldn't the lack of resolved nomenclature for a signficant
fraction of the biota be a reason to caution resource managers and
scientists about the profound limitations of any  conclusions reached in
such studies?  Do generalizations drawn from unidentified materials only
provide an illusion of significant findings?  How would we be able to
tell without referring to the accuracy of the identifications made?

I suggest that need for an approach such as "morphotyping" as a
substitute to traditional methods of nomenclature indicates there are
far too few people "hiding" in museums (or perhaps laboring over
materials previously collected by others rather than out potentially
collecting duplicates?).  Perhaps this also suggests that far too many
fail to recognize that some goals and values of the systematic
community, such as accurate identification, should be universal, if not
preeminent, if we are to stand a chance of saving even a small fraction
of extant biodiversity or understanding the biology of taxa that may
remain.  One might even go so far as to suggest that it is those who
fail to appreciate the urgency and critical scientific importance of
accurate identification to natural resource managment issues, who need
to "get real" and "get real" real quick.  Just because most folks
continue to regard taxonomy and systematics as not particularly
important or somehow tangential to the "real science" doesn't imply that
this imprudence will remain a viable strategy in the long term.


--
_____________________________________________________________________
Stuart G. Poss                       E-mail: sgposs at whale.st.usm.edu
Senior Ichthyologist & Curator       Tel: (601)872-4238
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory       FAX: (601)872-4204
P.O. Box 7000
Ocean Springs, MS  39566-7000
_____________________________________________________________________




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