[Taxacom] Does the species name have to change when it moves genus?

Quicke, Donald L J d.quicke at imperial.ac.uk
Mon Jun 18 13:45:30 CDT 2012

Hi Rob and all

I am not sure what all this is about. I agree fundamentally that names should not change gender endings, and people are not consistent with that despite what the codes say. fank Bisby was involved in writing software that could tell blaberius and blaberiae were possibly the same thing - whilst fuzzy, at least taht would flag issues.

But, as a practicing taxonomist who has revised many genera, the key thing is to know what species names are associated with a genus. ideally also with a date, author name, and reference. But even with only a sp name, any expert in a group will eventually trace the publication or determine within reasonable doubt, nomina nuda ... and just get on with it. That's the job of the taxonomist - to know which nominal taxa reasonably need to be considered, endeavour to find their types, and do the job. 

In terms of making automated global databases, it's definitely an issue. But who actually needs them? I know that that might sound like heresy, but please tell us who needs those names who is not already an expert or know/be-in-contact-with an expert.

For all the groups that (to some extent misguidedly though understandably) people use for global assessments (birds, mammals, butterflies, some plants, maybe some fish, reptiles and amphibians) it really doesn't much matter if valid species totals for any one place are only 95% accurate.

If someone in say Unbangistan, gets bitten by a cobra, it is unlikely to matter that the sp the local GP identified it as from their local field guide is actually a cryptic sp with a valid name lost in synonymy - the antivenom will either work and they'll live or keep their arm, or they'll die or lose their arm.

It is disheartening that having revised loads of genera, nearly all of the spp that i have described or synonymised have never been published on since (except rarely by myself). They will be no doubt in 20, 40, 70, 100 years when someone else next revises the group. The vast majority of spp are not important in any way that is currently understood. Of course some may be keystone spp, but we'll probably never know.

Pure nomenclatural accuracy is seldom of any critical importance. It is sad, but for most groups of organisms, that is true. 

so, in creating spp lists for countries, regions, national parks, areas of conservation concern, it simply is irrelevant whether they have 200, 1000, 5000 spp of Noctuidae and what the exact names of those are. If they have 5000 noctuids they probably also have 800 sp of birds, 100 of mammals and 500 of butterflies - i.e. they are a biodiverse place. If they have only 20 noctuids they are probably a disaster area or the arctic.

As far as i can tell, when a taxonomist revises any group, they usually have a pretty good grasp of what spp names they have to deal with, locate types, descriptions of, etc. 


From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] on behalf of Roderic Page [r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk]
Sent: 18 June 2012 19:18
To: taxacom
Subject: [Taxacom] Does the species name have to change when it moves genus?

OK, I know this is what we do, but my question is "why do we do this?"

As names change over time it becomes a major challenge to find everything published about a taxon. Some groups, such as frogs, are especially prone to name changes as their classification is unstable. Frogs have a pretty good online database detailing name changes, but most animal groups lack this, leaving people like me floundering around trying to make sense of multiple names why may or may not be for the same thing.

It seems to me that names should be unique and stable. We don't change the name of a species called "africanus" if we discover that the specimen locality was actually from Australia, nor do we change the name "maximus" if we subsequently discover a bigger species. But we do if we move it to a new genus. Why?

Presumably it's because we like the idea of being able to interpret the name - two members of the same genus are presumably more closely related to each other than to a species in a different genus. But demonstrably that is often untrue (otherwise we wouldn't have all the name changes due to moving species to different genera), and we've learnt not to interpret the name literally when inferring any biological attributes, so why the desire to have the name match some current notion of classification? Why not simply accept that we can't infer relationships from the name?

It seems to be that if we simply stopped trying to make names reflect classification, at a stroke we'd remove perhaps the primary cause of nomenclatural instability. For example, the recent case of Drosophila melanogaster would be a non-issue. It's "Drosophila melanogaster" regardles sof whether it's nested in the part of the fly tree that includes Sophophora. The relationships of the taxon would have no bearing on its name.


Roderic Page
Professor of Taxonomy
Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine
College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences
Graham Kerr Building
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

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