Home

General Discussions

1. Design flaws

 

When a taxonomist decides that he has discovered a new species, he writes a "Type Description" of it (until recently in Latin) and arranges for this to be published in a (sometimes obscure) scientific publication, and he places the “Type Specimen” (the specimen on which he based his description) in a museum where it will be available for future generations of scientists to examine. There was no recognised list of publications, and references in the Flora of Victoria include obscure publications like 'Sunnyatsenia' and 'Victorian Naturalist'.

In principle any taxonomist, anywhere, can describe a new species. He should only do so if he has taken reasonable measures to ensure that the specimen has not already been described, but the 19th century had a very different concept of "Library Search". Publications were expensive, communications were slow and there were often language problems. It was impossible to do a thorough search, and the same species was often described several times in different countries and journals. The rules covering this state that the first name published should take priority.

The following cases illustrate some of the problems this can cause:

1. In Australia there are a large number of Chryselomid beetles. These are small brightly coloured beetles shaped like the original VW "Beetle" car. In the 19th century collectors in Australia sent specimens of these back to their contacts in Europe, who named them. Unfortunately by the time they arrived in Europe they had faded to grey, and most of these scientists had never seen another specimen, and knew essentially nothing about them, so all too many of the type descriptions effectively said (in Latin) "Grey VW shaped beetle approximately 16 mm x 10 mm x 10 mm, found in New South Wales".

This was not a good start, but when modern scientists went looking for the type specimens they usually found:

   i. The host organisation had been destroyed in a war, or
  ii. The type specimen was a lump of mould, or

 iii.  It was a pile of insect droppings.

All this was bad enough, but when scientists started to study the life history of the beetles they sometimes found that identical looking beetles would have radically different larvae.

All this meant that until the taxonomists agreed to dump all the existing names and start afresh it was not possible to do any serious taxonomic work on any of these beetles. This was the situation in the 1970s. I don't know whether it has been resolved.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2017

Taxonomy: Part 1