Who needs author names? (was Re: abbreviations for author names)

Doug Yanega dyanega at UCR.EDU
Thu Mar 9 10:55:47 CST 2006

Chris Thompson wrote:

>Users, such as birdwatchers, ecologists, epidemiologists,
>agriculturists, etc., only use VALID names and each of these are
>unique without authors.
>So, once homonyms are identified and resolved, then the junior ones
>are no longer of any interest to any one except nomenclaturists.

I'm rather surprsied, Chris, that you would say this, after all those
annual ECN meetings (for those unfamiliar, that's the Entomological
Collections Network). Homonyms are a constant concern for every
single person who works with museum specimens - there isn't a museum
in the world that's 100% up-to-date on the nomenclature of all the
taxa it contains, and I'd estimate that the average insect collection
- yours in DC, mine, or anyone else's - has at *least* 10-30% of the
specimens labeled with names that are no longer in use (mostly due to
synonymy, admittedly, but new homonyms appear every day, too, as we
build bigger and better databases of names - I've discovered several
myself in just the last few months). It can take decades for a
specimen on a shelf to be re-examined by an expert, and if they
didn't have the author names appended, some of those specimens could
sit forever with the wrong taxon name. Curators need author names,
and always will.

As for the birdwatchers and ecologists and agriculturists, they may
have an even *worse* time of it if the literature doesn't use author
names, specifically because so much of the older literature contains
invalid names (most were valid *at the time of publication*).

As Donat Agosti wrote:

>But there is a sliver of silver on the night sky of systematics you draw
>so nicely, that is initiatives such as UBio or hopefully Zoobank, where
>you essentially type in any name and get out what all is known about it
>among its many versions. Especially, if we do have all our literature
>open access, machine readable and online.

That is why I and others are hoping to promote the development of
ZooBank into precisely this sort of resource - to at least
*eventually* go beyond pure nomenclature, and tell people who enter a
name into a search whether it is a homonym, synonym, or presently in
use, and even how it should be spelled. If folks like me have our
way, it'll even tell users whether a name has been historically
misapplied, which is a very common problem that isn't nomenclatural,
but makes a huge difference - for example, many museums contain
orchid bees labeled "Eulaema tropica (L.)", and there are many
literature references to this taxon - but it turns out to be a
misapplication, so while the *name* Apis tropica Linnaeus is a
synonym of Eufriesea surinamensis, all the *specimens* labeled as
tropica are actually Eulaema polychroma. We can eventually put nice
tools to resolve such issues at people's disposal (and UBio's
Nomenclator Zoologicus is one such tool), but the problems will never
go away completely.

Martin Spies added:

>In an ideal future situation - when all homonyms, etc., have been
>resolved - we might be able to get by without information in addition to
>the bare scientific names. Such nirvana could be reached, e.g., if
>ZooBank were established and extended all the way back to the beginning
>of zoological nomenclature, or if for each and every group of animals an
>Official List in the sense of the ICZN Code were established. However,
as everybody knows, we are far away from such a dream world.

We are not as far away as you might think. There are small chunks of
the taxasphere for which these objectives have already been largely
(or completely) achieved. The problem is bringing *everything* up to
the same standards - and I think where Chris and I share frustration
is that the bulk of this effort will, by definition, have to be done
by entomological taxonomists, and - in addition to there not being
enough of us - we simply aren't being offered anywhere near the kind
of support we need to do it. We could probably have a complete
Registry and Official List for vertebrates (including fossils) within
a year, without inordinate amounts of time or money, but to try to do
the same for arthropods requires literally orders of magnitude more
in the way of resources. One of the resources that would help *me* is
an online glossary of author name abbreviations, and that's what got
this thread started. But, ultimately, the "distance" from us having
our "dream world" is (in a practical sense) little more than the
distance from having someone give us - *collectively* - the support
we need. As long as we all have to *compete* for limited resources,
only a few institutions and a few taxa will have a chance to make
significant advances. If we could completely iron out one
average-sized insect family (which is roughly 3000 published names)
per 6-month funding cycle (so the rate would be about 20 names
Registered per day), it would still take around 1000 years. Of
course, if we could support 500 taxonomists working at that pace,
then we could do it in two years.

We need to think of ways to promote that latter scenario. If
taxonomists could spend their time doing taxonomy instead of writing
grant proposals, we'd be done in no time.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521-0314
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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