Jun 182016

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been tracking the newly described animal species that have made the news with their introduction to science, with the intent of understanding what factors make a new species newsworthy. I’m still collecting data and figuring out how to make sense of it all, but in the process I’ve come to realize that a fair number of taxonomists and journals are either unaware of the rules of nomenclature, or perhaps just don’t care.

There are a surprisingly large number of rules that govern how and where new species of animals can be legitimately described, rules that are created and occasionally adapted by the governing body of animal taxonomy, the ICZN. These rules are in place to ensure the language of biodiversityspecies, genus, and family names—are consistent and stable worldwide, ensuring that when a scientist in China refers to the genus Micropeza, scientists in Canada, Peru, and South Africa can all understand explicitly what the organism they are referring to is. Without stable names agreed on internationally, we would have a gigantic mess on our hands, and all of biology would grind to a halt.

One of the important tenets of stable names is establishing what name came first, and then using it forever (barring some scenarios in which the oldest name can be suppressed, which we won’t bother going into). This is called the Principle of Priority, and may be the most important (and sometimes, trickiest) rule to follow. Obviously, when trying to address what name was created first, it’s vital to know the exact date that name met all the criteria set forth by the ICZN and was officially coined. Again, there are a lot of rules that stipulate when a name is considered “official”, but one in particular is, for some reason, apparently being ignored more often than the others, and which can cause names to become complicated, quickly.

This rule, introduced in 2012, allows for new species names to be published in digital format (either as an early view version ahead of traditional printing, or entirely digital, like PLoS One for example). Up until this rule was introduced, only names published in journals or other publications that were printed out on paper (in multiple copies) and distributed to a couple of libraries were considered legitimate. But, recognizing that the world of scientific publication is changing (rapidly), the ICZN finally adopted a new rule allowing names to become official in digital publications, but only if the authors take one extra step: register their publications in a new database called ZooBank. This registration process does two things: 1) it allows for papers that have new names introduced in them to be more easily tracked, and 2) the registration process includes a stipulation that the journal intends to archive a non-editable PDF of the paper, so if the internet and all digital media are destroyed, we still (hypothetically) have records of these new names (although I reckon we’ll have bigger issues to deal with than worrying about correct taxonomy in that situation…). Regardless of the intent, these are the new rules, and for any names published in a digital format, the paper must be registered in ZooBank (and state in the paper somewhere that it has been), a process that takes less than 10 minutes to do. Simple enough, right? Apparently not.

In the past 6 months, of the roughly 120 taxonomic papers that have made the news, I’ve found at least 5 that have failed to meet this ZooBank qualification, meaning that any names introduced by the authors aren’t actually real (yet). Five papers out of 120 may not seem like that big a deal, but when you expand that ratio to the roughly 15,000 new animals species described every year, we’re potentially looking at 600 new species that unknowingly remain without an official name!

So what’s the big deal if a few more species remain nameless, there are millions left to be discovered anyways, right? And if the name is being published as an early view in a journal that still releases paper copies, the names will eventually become official once the paper versions are printed and distributed (perhaps weeks or months later). Basically, for scientists that have spent months or years examining specimens and collecting data only to fail to meet this one tiny requirement is akin to a person running a marathon, and then stumbling and falling on the very last step and being disqualified from the race, yet celebrating their “accomplishment” anyways. It may be awkward, or embarrassing, and it should be avoided by all means necessary, but won’t it all get fixed eventually? Well…

Besides the professional embarrassment, there’s a big problem just waiting to happen when names aren’t correctly, and formally, published: someone else scooping the naming rights for your species. Until the name is fully published and all the qualifications met, either by the name being printed out on paper when its assigned issue is published, or alternatively by someone else publishing their own paper that does meet all of the rules, there is no requirement that the name proposed by the original authors actually be used. In fact, nothing is stopping anyone from finding one of these inadequately named species, and turning around a quick paper coining a name of their own for the taxon, establishing priority and ensuring they are recognized for eternity, and not the people who did all the hard work. This type of taxonomic sniping isn’t unheard of, although to my knowledge there have not been any examples of ZooBank robbing, yet.

Is it shady? Definitely. Is it likely to happen? Eventually. Is it avoidable? Absolutely.

So as I’ve stumbled across these named-but-actually-unnamed species by accident, I’ve been sending out cautionary messages on Twitter reminding taxonomists or anyone else in the process of describing a new species about the ZooBank rule, or straight-up condemning repeat-offender journals and advising people not to publish new names in them (looking at you Scientific Reports). Which is what I did again Friday afternoon regarding another new species, published in a prestigious journal that should know better, but which failed the ZooBank test. Unlike previous times however, I linked to the paper, and called out the journal directly, mostly because I hold it in high regard, and also because subtweeting an entire field of science clearly wasn’t working.

To my surprise, within 30 minutes my cell phone was ringing, and the lead author of the paper in question was on the line asking not only what they did wrong, but more surprisingly, that I please delete my tweets calling attention to the issue. The author was aware that the ICZN had recently changed the rules to allow digital publication but didn’t know the specifics, and the journal they submitted to had apparently not published a new species description since the changes came into effect, and so weren’t prepared to comply on the author’s behalf either.

I ended up spending a good deal of time explaining the ZooBank rule to them, and suggesting how they can work with their journal editor to fix it, but I remained uneasy about deleting and retracting my tweets. However, after talking more with the author, and recognizing that they were genuinely afraid of a specific person known for their unscrupulous taxonomic practices learning of their mistake and taking advantage of it, I agreed to take down my tweets, but with the understanding that I would be disclosing the series of events and actions here, albeit with their anonymity intact. Frankly, the taxonomic community has enough challenges facing them, and I’d rather not contribute to those challenges further simply to prove a point at the expense of someone else’s hard work.

So be warned, readers working to document and describe Earth’s biodiversity! Spend some time learning the rules of nomenclature, and ensure that the journals that you submit your science to are equally knowledgeable of what it takes to name a species. And if you’re unsure of a journal’s dedication or experience publishing taxonomic research, take the responsibility for your hard work into your own hands and register your taxa and your papers yourself, and avoid the potential pitfalls of naming species in the digital era. You’ll be glad you did when you see your species spoken of with the name you intended!

Aug 312013

I was browsing Malcolm Campbell’s (highly recommended) weekly science link collection this morning, and came across an article in Nautilus on the newly described olinguito species. I was really enjoying the article, until the third to last paragraph, which triggered a bit of Twitter rant. Continue reading »

Jun 202012

Well this is fun1: an entomologist in New Zealand has decided to name a recently discovered moth species after the movie Avatar.

Arctesthes avatar

Arctesthes avatar courtesy of the Forest & Bird press release

The moth in question was recently discovered on a parcel of land in central New Zealand which is currently slated to become an opencast coal mine. In an effort to prevent the area from being destroyed, Forest & Bird (a conservation group in New Zealand) staged a BioBlitz to draw attention to the unique flora & fauna found there. After realizing that they had discovered an undescribed species at the BioBlitz, entomologist Brian Patrick and his son decided to hold a contest, encouraging the public to come up with a potential name for the new species to further draw attention to the cause.

After nearly 100 names were submitted, it was announced June 19, 2012 that the winning name will be Arctesthes avatar. From the press release:

Brian said the Avatar moth was a clear winner. “It was by far the best one. It’s a novel name and the movie is about a mining company that threatens to devastate a human-like species that’s living in harmony with nature. It’s just a really good analogy.”

As we’ve seen with other species names referencing pop-culture icons, the New Zealand media picked up the story and ran with it, publishing the story, the name, and a photo of the moth. Normally this would be great exposure for the researchers (and biodiversity science in general), getting some press for a new species in a location that’s not that far from populated areas.

Unfortunately for the researchers, they may have put the cart before the horse on this one by publicizing their discovery before publishing it themselves.

Unlike other sciences, where you may be able to get away with leaking your results a little ahead of your publication2, when it comes to naming species it’s incredibly important to wait until you’ve actually published. The reason being that if the new species name appears in a publication that has multiple, simultaneously printed copies (like the NZ Herald/Greymouth Star newspapers3) with even a semblance of a description (like “striped moth”, which has been used repeatedly with this story) and/or a photograph (see above), whoever wrote that article becomes the authority behind the name! Nevermind that Brian Patrick is the taxonomic expert, collected the specimen, recognized it as being unique, discovered where it belonged in the tree of life and, in this instance, acquired DNA evidence. All of that will go unrecognized4 and the first journalist who wrote up the story off the press release will go down as the one who formally described the species!

Simply put, instead of being recorded as Arctesthes avatar Patrick & Patrick 2012, the species will be known as Arctesthes avatar RandomJournalist 2012. Oops!

The fact that new species descriptions needn’t be published in a peer-reviewed journal may come as a surprise, but I think it’s an effort to keep taxonomy an accessible science for anyone, anywhere. It’s clear that some funny things can happen when there are few restrictions on where a species can be described, and as the Code of Zoological Nomenclature moves into the digital age with the next edition, many taxonomists are hoping that registration services like ZooBank will play a big role in new species descriptions and validation in the future. Until the new “Code” is ratified however, unfortunate events like what happened here with Arctesthes avatar are possible.

So remember kids, when you go to describe a new species, publish first, publicize second!

UPDATE 27/06/2012: As Kai pointed out in the comments below, the authors have escaped this embarrassing scenario because none of the media stories will likely include enough information to form a proper type designation.


1- My definition of fun and that of the entomologist involved are probably different here…

2- Although I would assume this is frowned upon as well.

3- Thanks to David Winter of the Atavism for help tracking these sources down.

4- They’ll still publish their work, but it won’t actually be a new species description anymore.

Feb 212012

I was browsing MSNBC tonight trying to stay up to date on goings on from around the world (well, at least the stuff that my Twitter feed hasn’t taught me already), when I saw this headline in the Science section:

In case you can't see it, the headline reads "Newly discovered legless amphibians are horrifying"

Ahh, nothing like some mainstream media-endorsed fear mongering to make people care about an at-risk animal! The amphibian being referenced is actually a really neat new family of Caecilian, legless amphibians which live underground and, in this case, look like earthworms with backbones.

Photo by SD Biju, linked from MSNBC article

The cruel irony is the author (who I’m going to assume didn’t write the headline) finishes off the story by saying:

The habitat of these bizarre animals is under threat, as farming takes over forest land in northeast India, according to the University of Delhi. Although caecilians are harmless, local lore has it that they are incredibly venomous snakes, another factor that threatens these mysterious, secretive creatures.

How exactly are we supposed to get the public to become interested in an at-risk new species when we set them up with negative opinions from the get go? Instead of sharing a fascinating new species that doesn’t conform to most people’s idea of what an amphibian is, and encouraging them to ask questions like “Wow, why does that animal look that way?” or “How is that a relative of frogs?”, MSNBC has instead promoted the ‘ick-factor’ and reinforced that if something looks different it should be feared. Maybe this type of headline will get a lot of people to click on the link, but how many will actually read the story and learn about their cool biology rather than just looking at the photo and agreeing with the headline? When the natural world coughs up an amazing story it’s maddening to see it trashed and slandered like this!

Of course, at least MSNBC knows that scientific family names like Chikilidae are always capitalized, unlike the CBC…


Update: It seems MSNBC syndicated this story and headline from LiveScience. Perhaps the headline was proposed by the author after all…