[Taxacom] I'm furious over article: On typeless species and the perils of fast taxonomy

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Sat May 14 20:12:20 CDT 2016

> I think
> that a recommendation to the effect that photographs alone are far from
> desirable would not go amiss. This has nothing to do with me working also with
> molecular markers, as I have also a rather big bone with uber-barcoders.

This seems like a reasonable approach, that captures what we all seem to agree on, which boils down more or less to "Make sure you capture as much primary information about the type specimen as you can, as accurately as possible, with the idea that a well-preserved specimen is by far the best option in the vast majority of cases." With a follow-up "If an exception must be made, be prepared to justify it or suffer the wrath of an angry mob of taxonomists."

The trick, of course, is how to paraphrase those sentiments in the form of a Recommendation (which I see as a better vehicle than an Article, because this issue is fundamentally about taxonomy, more so than nomenclature) that can be included with the Code. 

Again, though, I think it's unwise to focus on "photographs alone"; because what we're talking about is essentially the "best preservation of diagnostic characters of the type specimen".  You could replace "photographs alone" with "DNA sequences alone", or "CT Scan alone", or even in some cases "well-preserved specimen alone" (in cases where preservation techniques inevitably lead to some form of loss of diagnostic information).

> How do you promote/allow good taxonomists vs bad I ask? 

How has it been working so far for the past couple of centuries?  Given how rarely this issue flares up (last I remember that it rose to the level of consideration by the Commission was 2005), it seems to be pretty low on the overall "threat to nomenclatural stability" scale, historically.  I still don't see much evidence to support the fear that the practice will somehow explode in frequency (such fears eleven years ago don't seem to have materialized).

More generally, history (including recent history) is replete with examples of "bad apple" taxonomists who exploited the nomenclatural rules for short-term glory.  But inevitably, such "glory" is empty and short-lived, as the vast majority of scientists care about their reputations, and the community has been pretty effective (so far) at dishing out criticism where it is warranted.

For the record, I do NOT criticize the recent example involving the Africa fly as being criticism-worthy.  Quite the opposite: the authors, in my view, did an exemplary job of justifying their exception to the general rule.  The fact that, in spite of this, an angry mob of taxonomists asserted its wrath anyway, suggests to me that the community is still very proactive in rigorously examining itself. In other words, the self-policing of taxonomists on this issue appears to be very-much alive and well!

> How do you know this a priori? Type material may now diagnostically useless
> because we have some much stuff accessible to compare, vs a few decades
> ago. What would have been a distinct species then may be part of a cryptic
> group now or maybe it was a female as you say (I have dealt with a lot of those
> so I am familiar with the feeling).

And the reverse is true as well:  A well-preserved specimen might at first appear to maintain important diagnostic characters, until a later, future technology discovers cryptic species for which the preserved specimen alone is not helpful in diagnosing (obvious example being DNA sequences and formalin-preserved specimens).  This is why I think it's inappropriate to frame this as a "specimen vs. image vs. DNA sequence" debate (as it has mostly been so far).  We should instead frame it as "preserve as much information as possible concerning the type specimen", acknowledging that there will be cases where we fail to do so.  I can very easily imagine a not-too-distant future where this exact same outcry would demand that "preserved-specimen only" types should be outlawed by the Code.

> This however is no evidence against physical types, rather the opposite, that we
> need more sources of data tied to the type.



Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences | Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology | Dive Safety Officer
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252 email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org

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