Sunday, August 23, 2015

Andere Laender, andere Sitten

One thing that gave me a bit of a culture shock after coming to Australia was the way in which plant taxonomists work here compared to how I had been trained by European and North and South American taxonomists.

Creation of superfluous synonyms

How it works elsewhere: A botanist discovers a new species and publishes a paper describing it as new to science. The taxonomists who trained me, who collaborated with me, and who reviewed and edited my papers before I came to Australia would have been utterly horrified by the idea of producing unnecessary taxonomic synonyms and invalid names, and so every naming of species that is not the official publication of a new, valid, scientific name was strongly discouraged.

How it works in Australia: A botanist discovers a new species, but they don't feel like they have the time to describe it just now. It is given a phrase name that is at the same time official for the purposes of databasing and species checklists and not an official scientific species name. It takes the form GenusName sp. PlaceName (A.Collector 1234) SomeHerbarium. When that species is later described as GenusName specificEpithet Author, the phrase name is cited in the synonymy.

Why I am skeptical about the Australian way: Of course I understand the theory behind the phrase names. It takes time to formally describe a species as new to science, or so the argument goes, and being able to put out these phrase names makes it possible to at least recognise undescribed species for the purposes of conservation.

However, how long does it take to describe a species as new to science? Well, if I am sure I have a new species, I know how it differs from the most similar species in the same genus, I have a good specimen to use as a type, and I really do not want to do anything more than get that one name out quickly, then it should be possible to put together a manuscript describing the species in a few days. Let's say four days, tops? And that is assuming I have other stuff to do at the sides; if we are talking full focus, say perhaps two days.

Seriously, it is just a question of examining the available specimens, writing up a description, citing the type, and adding a little introduction at the beginning of the text explaining the circumstances of discovery. Perhaps take a digital scan of the type and label it as figure 1 if you want. These days it isn't even necessary to have a Latin diagnosis! Submit the manuscript to a taxonomic journal like Nuytsia, Telopea, Muelleria, Austrobaileya or whatever, and within a few months at the very latest the species has been validly published.

Yes, sometimes one may not want to do it like that, and I understand even as I do not share the desire to collect all the knowledge on a genus for twenty years and then publish a big monograph as one's life's work. But this is then something very different from the argument that one needs to get names out quickly for conservation purposes. The monographer could also just describe them quickly and still write their big book years later.

What is more, I sometimes wonder if the option of using phrase names does not severely reduce the incentive to describe species properly. I have seen numerous cases where taxonomists have "marked" a new species as theirs to describe by entering a phrase name into a state checklist, and five to ten years later the species is still undescribed. Another problem is of course that international journals will be somewhere between puzzled and horrified if you submit to them a paper using Australian phrase names.

Lots of irrelevant references in the nomenclatural section

In taxonomic monographs and revisions, a scientific plant name is followed by the authority, the place where and year when they published the name, and then by the basionym (original species name before it was moved to the current genus) and synonyms (different, younger names for the same species) with the same information, if any exist.

How it works elsewhere: Arbor vulgaris (Smith) Miller, Bot. Jahrb. 98: 4, 1912 = Planta vulgaris Smith, Disc. Reg. Plant. 3: 59, 1870. Type: Smith 456 (holo: B).

In this case, the publication of the current combination followed by the publication of the basionym. Simple.

How it works in Australia: Arbor vulgaris (Smith) Miller, Bot. Jahrb. 98: 4, 1912; N.Janssen, Revision of the genus Arbor: 11, 1935; B.Stronski, Monograph of the genus Arbor: 34, 1950; Sorensen, Synopsis of the genus Arbor: 62, 1965; Ulysses & Thomspon, Flora of East Guengteng: 289, 1981; Unterhubler et al., Flora of North Guengteng 1: 306, 1989; Mayer, Flora of West Guengteng 3: 123, 1992; Xi et al., Flora of South Guengteng: 77, 2001  = Planta vulgaris Smith, Disc. Reg. Plant. 3: 59, 1870. Type: Smith 456 (holo: B).

What is all this extra text? For some reason, many Australian taxonomists add to the list of nomenclaturally relevant publications every single publication where the species was treated or mentioned even if no nomenclatural changes happened. I am told that the extra information is useful for people who want to know where additional information on the species might be found in the literature.

Why I am skeptical about the Australian way: I hope the looong list of references in the second example has made my point. As I see it, the purpose of this little section after the species name is to summarise nomenclatural history. If most of the references in there are completely irrelevant publications in which no nomenclatural changes took place then the relevant information is hard to extract. Shades of needle in a haystack.

If it is considered necessary to cite every time somebody mentioned a species, then I'd argue the introduction is the right place in the paper. By definition, providing this background is what an introduction section is for. It might also be useful to contemplate how such a list would look for a long-known, widely distributed species like the common lawn daisy Bellis perennis or the grass Festuca rubra; if the approach taken in Australian taxonomic literature were applied in Europe such a summary would often fill a whole book by itself!

Pro parte

As mentioned above, in taxonomic papers this little summary after the species name lists the synonyms of a species. For example, as a taxonomist you may conclude that there is one specific species of tree out there that has independently been described as new to science three times: Arbor rubra L., Arbor septentrionalis DC., and Arbor alpina Smith. Perhaps this happened because DeCandolle and Smith did not know that Linnaeus had already described the species, or perhaps they thought that there were really several distinct species where your analyses find only one. Be that as it may, you conclude that there is only one, Arbor rubra is the valid name because it is the oldest, and the other two are younger synonyms of the same one species.

How it works elsewhere: Arbor rubra L. = A. septentrionalis DC. = A. alpina Smith. (Leaving out the types and publications here to make it simpler.)

How it works in Australia: Arbor ulcifolia Author spec. nov. = A. septentrionalis DC., p.p. = A. alpina Smith., p.p. = A. australis F.Muell., p.p. = A. longifolia R.Br., p.p. = A. acutifolia R.Br., p.p. = A. alba Smith, p.p. = A. corymbosa Miller, p.p. = A. cupularis Meyer, p.p. = A. glacialis Schultze, p.p.  (Again leaving out the types and publications here to make it simpler.)

What the Australian taxonomist does here is describe a species that has never before been recognised as being distinct, as even existing, as new to science; so generally it should not have any synonyms. Where then does that long list of synonyms come from? P.p. means pro parte, in part. So really the taxonomist cites every case where a few specimens of this new species have been labelled as belonging to another species in the synonymy.

Why I am skeptical about the Australian way: This feels wrong to me in two distinct ways. First, when the specimens were labelled as something else, the new species did not yet exist in the scientific literature. It can therefore hardly be claimed that all these authors - DeCandolle, Smith, Ferdinand Mueller, etc. - treated part of Arbor ulcifolia as a different species. They didn't have an opinion on the treatment of A. ulcifolia because they didn't know that the species even existed!

Second, one might again fruitfully contemplate how such a list would look for a common and long known European species. Book length, again. It just seems a bit ... odd ... to elevate what amounts to a simple misidentification into an entry in the list of synonyms. Those are two very different things, and I feel the synonym list should remain uncluttered by things that aren't nomenclaturally relevant.


Well, this is how Australian colleagues do this, and I will happily deal with it, even if it makes extracting information from the papers harder. But when writing my own stuff, I still prefer doing it the way I learned.

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