Category Archives: zoological nomenclature

The artist with the golden guppy

Tor Otto Fredlin photograph

Tor Otto Fredlin. Photo published in Akvariet, 1932. Unknown artist. Public domain.

In my mildly energetic aspirations to acquire a full set of the Swedish aquarium magazine Akvariet (1927-1988), I was fortunate to add recently the 1932 volume, which turned out to contain  several highlights. This volume, the October issue contains a rare description of a new fish by Wilhelm Schreitmüller, naming it after the Swedish painter Tor Otto Fredlin. It is not cited in the Catalog of Fishes and Google doesn’t know about it yet, so it may be worth commenting on.

Tor Otto Fredlin was born in north Sweden, in the town of Härnösand, 16 June 1890. After school he tested different professions and among other things assisted a a taxidermist. His inclination seems to have been toward painted more than real animals, however. He studied painting at Althin’s School of Painting (in Swedish: Althins målarskola) in Stockholm 1910-1912, and his first exhibition was in Härnösand in 1915. He moved to Lund in southern Sweden in 1920, and stayed there for the rest of his life. Fredlin never married, and he made only one trip abroad, to study art in France in 1924.  As an artist he mainly painted nature settings with animals in focus, mostly birds, but also colourful landscapes. Most paintings seem to have been aquarels and oil paintings of small size.

Akvariefiskar, from Djurens värld 1939, 1948. Artist T.O. Fredlin

Fredlin’s colour plate Akvariefiskar I in Wallengren & Hanström, 1939, 1948, Djurens värld, Fiskar. Actually a composite copied from other illustrations not in copyright.

On the fish side, he made the colour illustrations for the encyclopedic Djurens värld (Wallengren & Hanström, 1937-1940, reprinted 1948), at least one of them depicting fishes he might have had in his own aquarium. Yes, he was also a fish keeper and fish breeder, an aquarist. I cannot find much about Fredlin as an aquarist (or even as an artist), but an idolizing article by the signature Bej in Akvariet, 1932, may be cited in part:

!… one of our country’s greatest aquarium friends. … It is Tor Otto Fredlin, the artist, “the nearsighted nature observer” as an art critic once so characterisingly expressed it. Because our friend Fredlin is a nature observer as few others! He sees everything i nature. Some things even that are secluded from us normal people. … He has the true ability to decorate his containers as cosy and attractive. It is always a pleasure to visit him and hear him speak about and describe his animals. … He shared generously from his rich knowledge. When this was so distributed in the timid way that is so particular for Fredlin, one felt his greatness and was impressed. Already in 1926 he had in addition to many egglayers a remarkably beautiful stock of mirrored golden platys, cultivated by himself. It was lost during a trip up to Norrland. But he did not despond. A lot was still in the wait. He observed our commonest fish, the guppy. Wasn’t there something to do? Couldn’t one get something exceptional out of it? And thus the thought of the yellow guppy that is now a reality had run up to his brain. Who else among us would have had the patience then to spend 7 whole years with this “inconspicuous” fish? It had to be a Fredlin! [The translation attempts to preserve some of the spirit of the original.]

Breathtaking praise. Fredlin must have been a star among aquarists. More sober, but still generously appreciative was Edvin Brorsson’s (1956) obituary. Obviously Fredlin ended his days in the autumn of 1955 as an aquarist in action, among his aquaria in his home in Lund: “He was in the middle of work with cleaning a container as he sat down to rest on a chair, and from here fell dead to the floor.”

His artistic career apparently was not rocketing at any time. His paintings still sell, at modest prices, but let us remember him primarily for painting a grey fish golden, as close to an alchemical GMO one can come. One would expect Fredlin to have painted his golden guppies also in oil, but I am unaware of a colour illustration. Brorsson (1942) reproduces a drawing in monochrome halftone, presumably of a colour painting. It is a typical Fredlin scene, with half the painting empty, and the subject hovering in front of vegetation. Like Fredlin’s fish illustrations in Djurens värld the drawing lacks artistic quality. Many or all of his fish drawings seem to be exact or crude reproductions of photographs. In the colour plate shown here, the Rivulus urophthalmus (yellow top fish) and Hemigrammus ocellifer (group of greys to the left) are exactly as on photographs in Innes (1935, pp. 112, 243), even in number and position, even the background has been copied. Presumably living aquarium fish weren’t within the artistic nearsightedness of the master.

I am ignorant enough about guppies to not know if the golden guppies in the aquarium shops today are descendants of the Scanian breed. It seems likely that pigment mutations of later days may have taken the place of Fredlin’s creation. Nevertheless, at the time, this golden guppy was regarded as something very special. Edvin Brorsson, publisher of Akvariet, sent a batch of living goldens to Wilhelm Schreitmüller in Frankfurt, editor of the Wochenschrift für Aquarien- und Terrarienkunde, and author of several books on aquarium fishes. Schreitmüller responded with an article describing the goldens as a new “variety”, naming it for Fredlin, which in its entirety reads like this when translated from Swedish to English:

Lebistes reticulatus (Peters) var. Fredlini (Schreitm.)
By Vilhelm Schreitmüller, Frankfurt am Main

A short time ago, Mr Brorsson, Malmö, sent me a fish can with some golden yellow Lebistes reticulatus (Peters), millionfishes or Guppi), along with a message that these were produced in culture from the typical and natural form by a Swedish aquarium friend, Mr T. O. Fredlin, over a period of 8 years, and that the fishes nowadays leave a stable offspring. In shape those animals are typcal Lebistes reticulatus (Peters). The males have a length of 2-2.5 cm., the females 3-3.5 cm., all including caudal fins.

On the back, the males are dark yellow, while hindbody and caudal pedcuncle are light yellow, the latter with 2 vermilion round spots, in front of which are placed a dark and a copper red spot. One of the males sent along has a dark, white-margined dot at the base of the caudal fin. The scales on the anterior par tof the back have a faint dark margin.

The females are orange yellow on the back and on the entire hindbody with caudal peduncle. The pregnancy spot is pink red. The scales on the anterior part of the back are finely dark margined. The abdomen is yellow white.

We thus have to deal with heare typical xanthoristic specimens, whose fins are transparent and seem to be equipped with a yellow cast. Pectoral and pelvic fins’s base is reddish.

In recognition of the breeder and to differentiate these animals from the typical Lebistes reticulatus (Peters), I call this fish:“Lebistes reticulatus (Peters) var. Fredlini (Schreitm.)”
even if xanthoristic forms “actually” should not have a distinct name (usually!) – But that even the professional zoologists make exceptions in this regard is apparent best from the names below:

“Carrasius auratus (L.)” = goldfish,
“Tinca aurata (Cuv.)” = guldsutare,
“Cyprinus auratus (Mats.)” = gold carp,
“Platypoecilus immaculatus (Myers)” = gold platy,
and many others, which all of them also are only xanthoristic forms of the species in question.

In the same manner certain melanotic forms of lizards, e.g., “Lacerta lilfordi maluqueurorum (Mertens)” and several others receive their particular variety names.

So – why should one not then be able to give the xanthoristic form of Lebistes reticulatus (Peters) a proper variety name? “Was dem Einen recht ist, ist dem Anderen billig”!

Food, care and water temperature is for the new guppy the same as for the original species.
(Frankfurt am Main 10/10  [Italics as in the original, parentheses as in the original. PDF of original]

A similar text, in German, was published in the Wochenschrift in 1933 (Schreitmüller, 1933). Schreitmüller’s  description does not make the name fredlini available for purposes of zoological nomenclature. On the one hand,  the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature covers names of domestic animals (e.g., Canis familiaris for dogs), but is also expressly excludes names proposed for varieties after 1960. For names of varieties proposed before 1961, Articles 45.6.1 and 45.6.4 apply, and they exclude names given to what obviously is not a subspecies except if a later citation exists, before 1985, that uses the name for a valid species or subspecies. This may be worth looking into, but for now, fredlini is not going to lengthen our lists of guppy synonyms, as the name was applied explicitly on a colour form.

Fredlin’s golden guppy is not the only one, and not the only one named by Schreitmüller. Already in 1934 Schreitmüller  reported on specimens of “Goldguppy” sent alive to him and originating from German breeders in Czechoslovakia (Schreitmüller, 1934). He compared them with the Fredlin guppy, noting that the Czechoslovakian guppy lacked spots on the side and fins, and that the Fredlin guppy was more intensely golden yellow. Schreitmüller named the new form Lebistes reticulatus aurata, noting that: “Dieser name soll nur als Unterscheidungsmerkmal dienen.” [This name must only serve as distinguishing character.] One may interpret this as meaning that Lebistes reticulatus aurata was intented as just a category stamp and not as a scientific name. Seven specimens are preserved in the Zoological Museum in Berlin, and were listed as syntypes of of Lebistes reticulatus aurata by Paepke & Seegers (1986), so obviously these authors considered Schreitmüller’s name available, although they identify the specimens as Poecilia reticulata.

In a later issue of the Wochenschrift, Franz Melecky, from Kremsier (Kroměříž, in the present Czech Republic), described how he discovered golden guppies in his plant breeding compound, propagated them and started distributing Goldguppy as Lebistes reticulatus aurata from 1925 onward. Interestingly, Melecky uses the name Lebistes reticulatus fredlini at the end of his story, speculating if a cross with the Fredlin guppy could improve on the size of his own Goldguppy, as they didn’t reach the sizes of the original stock. Does this make fredlini available? Or is this the end of the story?


  • Bej. 1932. Känd akvarieentusiast. Akvariet, 6: 39–40.
  • Brorsson, E. 1942. Den stora akvarieboken. Andra, reviderade upplagan. Sundqvist & Emond, Lund, 300 pp.
  • Brorsson, E. 1956. T. O. Fredlin. Akvariet, 30: 47.
  • Innes, W.T. 1935. Exotic aquarium fishes. Innes Publishing Co., Philadelphia, 464 pp.
  • Melecky, F. 1934. Goldguppy (Lebistes reticulatus aurata). Wochenschrift für Aquarien- und Terrarienkunde, 31: 427.
  • Nyman, T. 1944. Fredlin, Tor Otto. P. 592 i Bohman, N. (ed.), Svenska män och kvinnor 2. Albert Bonniers Förlag, Stockholm.
  • Paepke, H.-J.  & L. Seegers  1986 Kritischer Katalog der Typen und Typoide der Fischsammlung des Zoologischen Museums Berlin. Teil 1: Atheriniformes. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin, 62: 135–186.
  • Schreitmüller, V. 1932. Lebistes reticulatus (Peters) var. Fredlini (Schreitm.).  Akvariet, 6: 118–119.
  • Schreitmüller, W. 1933. Neuimporte und anderes. Hyphessobrycon bifasciatus Ellis, Cichlosoma cutteri Fowl., Colossoma species, Hyphessobrycon species I und II und Lebistes reticulatus (Pet.) var. fredlini (Schreitm.). Wochenschrift für Aquarien- und Terrarienkunde, 30: 145–149.
  • Schreitmuller, W. 1934. Der “Goldguppy” und ein Totalalbino von Xiphophorus hellerii Heckel. Wochenschrift für Aquarien- und Terrarienkunde, 31: 242–243.
  • Wallengren, H. & B. Hanström (eds.). 1939. Djurens värld. En populärvetenskaplig framställning av djurens liv på grundval av Brehm’s Tierleben utarbetad av Ingvald Lieberkind. Fiskar Band II. Svensk uppslagsbok, Malmö, 439 pp.
  • Wallengren, H. & B. Hanström (eds.). 1948. Djurens värld. En populärvetenskaplig framställning av djurens liv på grundval av Brehm’s Tierleben utarbetad av Ingvald Lieberkind. Fiskar Band II. Förlagshuset Norden, Malmö, 439 pp.

Cleaning out the bugs: fruitfly name to be based on science not convention

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature just published an opinion on  the name of a laboratory animal known as fruit fly, and identified as Drosophila melanogaster. Yes, that standard lab creature to sort into phenotypes during genetics classes. An application was made in 2007 requesting that if phylogenetic research would show that the fruit fly does not belong in the genus Drosophila (it has always been in the subgenus Sophophora, which then is the best candidate), the generic name should nevertheless follow it by making D. melanogaster type species of Drosophila. There was quite some discussion, difficult to understand the heat of, because the fruit fly hasn’t had its name changed yet, or anything very near. Many opposed to a potential change of the generic name for melanogaster, and supported the application. There were also voices to let taxonomy have its way, change the name if need be.

In fishes, the zebrafish, tilapias, and rainbow trout – maybe a magnitude less published on, but nevertheless important species beyond ichthyological introversions — change name in a snap the day the message comes. People were equally happy with Danio rerio then Brachydanio rerio and then Danio rerio again. Tilapias are known now mostly as Oreochromis — bothers noone. And the rainbow trout is Oncorhynchus mykiss — not Salmo gardneri (doubt very few remember this “well-known” name anymore). Entomologists may be less elastic than ichthyologists, giving them more headache and pains. Ichthyologists know that fish (no scientific name known) are a paraphyletic group, nevertheless do not demand that Pisces must be used by force.

The reflection of systematics in the names of organisms and groups of organisms is one of the strengths of Zoological Nomenclature. When a species goes from a bad to a better generic allocation based on scientific evidence it gets a new generic name, and that is a very strong signal of progress. Otherwise perhaps day-to-day taxonomic landwinnings would go unnoticed. As evidenced by thousands and thousands of nameshifts over time, this is not a challenge at all to systematics or science otherwise.

Nevertheless, as in all communities there are other opinions. One drawback of nameshifts is that literature searches get more complicated, one has to seach for two instead of one name. In some databases, such as GBIF and FishBase this is taken care of because FishBase and other databases keep synonymies and serve results under the presently valid name regardless of what name was used in the references. Not magic, hard manual work over the years. But so, if you look in older literature from Artedi onward, a large part of the species descriptions are taken up by synonymies, name lists in which authors made an effort to list all mentions of a particular species. This is not done anymore because the lists would become too long and require an amount of double-checking that few modern workers can afford. Instead we look forward to the Global Names Architecture and dependable search and retrieve databases based on resources such as ZooBank. Managing names, however, will not reduce the really major problem with the knowledgebase, namely misidentifications. A solution with misidentifications has been proposed that uses species concepts (based on stated definition of a taxon by and author) instead of named species, but that approach is not very helpful because it tends to have  a different concept of the same species for every publication, and in principle makes the name independent of the species. No gain. So, we are going from Opera omnia to history-free papers, and that causes worries (about names, where the worry should be about misidentifications) and technology will need to come to rescue. And will. Someday.

Back to the fruit fly. When I was a student it was called banana fly (it is actually a vinegar fly…?), like all other small flies swarming around the fruit in the summer. What scientific name it had did not matter to teachers or students alike. And there are lots of fruit flies that are not Drosophila, D. melanogaster, or even the same family. The paraphyletic genus Drosophila as of today has 1,450 species.

The Commission has now (April 2010) issued an Opinion in response to the Application to change the type species of Drosophila to be melanogaster. The Commission says no – 23 against 4. Commissioners have different opinions, but seem to converge on the case being about taxonomy, not nomenclature, so it is not a matter for the Commission. It is also mentioned that one should not deal with hypothetical cases, as this one – actually the fruit fly is still in its old genus. You can read it all on the Commission website: ICZN Opinion on Case 3407

A Google search today finds 1,040,000 results for fruitfly (includes fruit fly); 1,570,000 for  “Drosophila melanogaster”, and an astonishing 2,880,000 for Drosophila without melanogaster, suggesting that he scientific species name combination is not that worked in rock. Nonetheless, Sophophora melanogaster has currently only 93,700. Let’s see how that has changed a year or two from now.

And the winner is:


Fruit fly busy with something else. Photo: Botaurus, Wikimedia. Public domain.

The New Nominomania

Roger Hyam’s blog post Calling time on biological nomenclature and the comments it received, also on Taxacom, makes me wonder if not biodiversity informatics is the enemy rather than the servant of science. What some of my colleagues argue for are empty name lists, including also artificial constructs like barcode species. Then erecting the haplotype as the focal point of taxonomy is apparently to be expected lying in ambush.

For taxonomists, names are abstractions of scientific knowledge, and cannot, consequently, be managed in a formalised top-down system. To call for science to be published in only certain journals, to advocate that certain kinds of “species” should be the only ones permitted, are not friendly proposals to rationalise information flows, but denials of the process of free information gathering. It is plain denying that taxonomic papers are primarily contributions to science in the first place, and name machines only secondarily. Taxonomy must remain a scientific exercise, and cannot be a mechanical process.

The idol project brought forth is the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria, where there is a Committee to decide, a single place to register names, and — most importantly, forgotten by the supporters — less than 10 000 diagnosable units are included. Since bacteria are so different from other organisms, and the named units so few (at least that have been admitted by this Committee …) the ICNB is simply not possible to use as a model for the several million species of multicellular organisms, most of which have not been named yet.

Whereas I am a friend of registration of names, and advocating that scientific names as defined in the Botanical and Zoological Codes are as good markers as can be (human-friendly they are) of scientific processes of elucidating the characteristics, whereabouts, and history of pieces of biodiversity, I cannot be positive to registration replacing the scientific procedure of testing hypotheses of phylogenetic distinctness labelled with scientific names. No committee should certainly be involved here. And whereas barcodes can probably be an interesting tool for the food industry and similar, I don’t see much use for it in taxonomy where we have species concepts based on evolutionary theory, type specimens, and diagnoses that are compatible with scientific theory and hypotheses. In taxonomy, contrast to the barcode shop, we also have flexible systems to classify biological units other than “species”.

Whereas taxonomists must be more collaborative with biodiversity informatics in, e.g., voluntary registration in ZooBank, and show more effort to make their work and naming visible, it is the task of biodiversity informatics to find the methods to discover, assemble, and present the objects of biodiversity. We must not adapt science to fit the index.

The concerted effort of GBIF and Encyclopedia of Life to build a Global Names Architecture (GNA), providing a Global Names Index (GNI), seems to me to be a way out of the dilemma that biodiversity informatics is entangled in: information about biodiversity cannot be extracted because there are too many names (with misspellings, synonyms, homonyms, etc.) out there and the approximate (can never be exact) meaning of a name may vary from one mention to another. Certain related efforts, such as transparently tagging names with identifiers, as is being done in Zootaxa and ZooKeys, are bridging the gap between computerified and human-mediated names. Thus the technology is there, it is evolving, and taxonomy should be able to continue as a science.

The real difference between the mega-name-consumers and taxonomy is that mega-name-consumers wish to have all in one place, which is probably of zero interest to taxonomy. They are also not interested in metadata such as diagnosis, type specimens, etc., and they do not want taxon concepts to change, which they inevitably must do in science. In taxonomy, only small sets of taxa (and names) are handled at any given time, and of these, all have a definite function in the particular study, may be a revision, a field guide, a phylogeny, or a classification. In such contexts, the name domain is self-contained, and all named units are related to each other by the hypothesis or scope of the study. Everything else is of zero interest. For a study of cichlid fishes, it is of no interest whatsoever if New Zealand Lepidoptera exist. Enter mega-name-consumers, who will need both in the same list because those lists are not based on any scientific criterion and it is absolutely not known what the list is for. If consumers could define their precise needs from study to study, it might be easier to design the tools to extract the names and concepts actually needed. To maintain lists of millions of names, even in a database, for no specific purpose does not make much sense. Indeed, most checklists of smaller scale as well, especially when produced by non-specialists are equally meaningless anachronisms of apparently undefeatable listmania.

So, we must ask from biodiversity informatics:

  1. Proper specification of what their taxonomic units (text-names or LSIDs) are going to be used for. Map species occurrences, make phylogenetic hypotheses, sort out homonyms, …?
  2. Design systems that can effectively detect, maintain, and trace name usage and relevant metadata, compatible with taxonomic objectives and procedures.
  3. Provide voluntary registration systems, and other tools facilitating the exchange of names and metadata between taxonomists and consumers.

Whereas 2 and 3 may be underway, I am beginning to doubt that anyone can give a good answer to 1…

For those who cannot embrace taxonomy fully, I recommend stamp collecting. It has all the flavors of registration, codes, hybridisation, phylogeography, central committees, misidentifications, rare haplotypes, identical reissues, fakes, top-down standards, and stasis. It is a totally unscientific enterprise with no limits to organisational options suitable for old frustrated men obsessed with control. Ooops, does it sound like DNA barcoding …?

Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Darwinius masillae available

Finally, not letting the news fade too quickly, PloS have earned one more publicity score by adhering to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, by making prints available of its article on Darwinius masillae, as reported to The Loom.

If it is so difficult for e-only journals to publish taxonomic papers following the simple rules applying, no wonder that the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature is working so hard to make it possible, and possible for everyone, not just PloS, to publish nomenclatural acts e-only.

The Commission has opened a consultation with the community about an amendment to the Code to permit e-only publishing of nomenclatural acts, posted on their website. A first round of comments has already been published.

With more than 1.8 million species named, and scientific names being the only index to this diversity, it is evident that the stability of names within the botanical and zoological nomenclatural systems is a priority for all. In its strive to take nomenclature to digital dimensions while still maintaining a system supporting stability in the short and long term, the Commission needs all advice and comments it can get from experts and practitioners.

Today’s buzz

Da buzz of today and the day before is a long-tailed almost-monkey hitting the book shelves, TV screens, all other media, and the scientific press in one sweep. If it costs USD 1 million on the fossil market, there are consequences.

Ida, also known as Darwinius masillae, a 47 million year old fossil of a
primate mammal. From Franzen et al. (2009), slightly modified.

So, where to go with taxonomy? Play show, or play low? Whereas on the one hand it is fascinating that taxonomy can be so pervasive and so hypeable, and should nourish hopes of more appreciation for this discipline which underlies all biology but also is a science on its own; the other hand is raised in warning that we can’t do science only in the headlines.

Although the article in question, about a 47 million year old primate fossil from Germany, is very nicely done, and has a fascinating history to tell, the most telling indication that things are not coming out as intended is the complete misunderstanding expressed in all headlines, “missing link between monkey and Man”. For what I understand it is more something that went extinct between lemurs and monkeys. But I see Sir David hugging a lemur in promoting the research on …. aw, yes, that’s where we are. The crucial piece in taxonomy. The scientific name. The index. The one item that is needed to find back the information about this species.

PlosOne, the publisher of the study of dear almost-monkey is an e-only journal, where authors pay to publish, but it is free to read online. There is no paper edition. For a scientific name to be available it has to be in a publication printed on paper, with simultaneously available more than one identical copies (or on other more or less durable media provided some special conditions, but web publication is not permitted). The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is quite clear on this in its Article 8. The Code is there to keep track of the names of more than 1.5 million animal species on Earth, and thus a very important instrument in Zoology.

There is no evidence yet that this paper publication exists, and thus the intended name of the fossil, Darwinius masillae, as it appears in the online article, is reproduced here only to attract search engines to this blog.

This is somewhat embarrassing, but also sign of the times, times when roads cross at different levels and communication has glitches in changing traditions. We are going digital. Not only our toys and tools are binary and glowing like Swatch watches, but our minds have drifted away with the circuits. I was fascinated by the digital displays and remote controls on the vacuum cleaners when looking for replacement for the one that died; seems, however, the analogue version eventually purchased sucks dust with sufficient energy without displays.

I have no intention of not being absorbed by the digital tsunami. I will survive surfing. It will take some adjustments, however. E-only publishing of taxonomic matter is still counter to stability. But we have to find ways for e-only to come forth. Not to promote hype, but so we can get more papers published and more papers (read: information) more widely accessible, than is possible by paper publication. My office, my home office, are both like libraries. And still every day there is some paper-only publication that I need and cannot get. But I am immensely grateful for AnimalBase and the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and of course the Internet Archive and Google Books, for frequently saving my day.

I want all of the fishes I publish on to be on TV, and in the newspapers. I want TV personalities to enthusiastically comment on the fishes I study. But first of all, I would like to see this information society come together a little bit better, with open access, GUIDs, e-only publishing, the Global Names Architecture (GNI) and more from the informatics side, and names, descriptions, diagnoses, images, data and interpretations from the taxonomists’s side. In that context, we shall not forget to make the names nomenclaturally available.

Blog links
Ed Young
Brian Switek
Carl Zimmer

Article link

Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, et al. 2009 Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

New toy in town – GNI

Some days ago – well, maybe weeks then – I touched on the usefulness of ZooBank, Catalog of Fishes, and friends. The bigger of them all is, however, GNI, a pronounceable acronym, a component of the GNA (The Global Names Architecture), but unrelated to GNU (GNU’s Not Unix). The Global Names Index is a name aggregator for scientific names of organisms. It contains 12 million names. You will now know why it takes a special category of wizards to practice taxonomy. These gentle people are managing 12 million names, and of course they will love this new toy brought to them by GBIF and EoL. Them, because GNI seems not to have much appeal beyond the professional taxonomist and biodiversity informatician.

GNI is one necessity when trying to build large systems of biological information, because all is indexed against names of organisms. To be sure, specialized systems like FishBase realized this many, many years ago and have systems that are superior within their domain. In the long run, however, a common approach may be the only way to endorse.

GNI is ok to search already now. Try Astyanax kullanderi, a fish you have not heard of before. Does it exist? One chance in 12 million. Enter and be confirmed.

It is there, in uBio, with one NameBank record drawn from Catalogue of Life and ultimately FishBase. It has an LSID there, but this is not the ZooBank LSID. We do not want to be confused, so we make a back click to find two GBIF records, neither georeferenced. It is the holotype, catalogued in NRM 21000 and served by GBIF-Sweden, but also in the GBIF edition of FishBase, which happens to be served also by GBIF-Sweden although the entry says it is served by FishBase Philippines. And at NRM this catalog number refers four paratypes.

Amazing, no?

Of course this tool is better needed for machine use than for humans to click around in. Or as David Remsen, the architect behind this construction puts it:

GNI was developed because of the central importance of the names of organisms in the management of data about organisms. The primary users of this site are not people, but other machines, so please don’t complain because the site is boring.

As a tool for testing the existence of names, it is already worth being bored a bit. If the result is positive, that is reassuring. If negative, apply the precautionary principle and ask your favorite taxonomist.

YouTube has this video of David Remsen explaining how the GNA works.

This is not Astyanax kullanderi, but a species of Synbranchus from Brazil,
closely related to Monopterus albus from Asia. Photo A. Kullander, CC-BY-NC

Vandals in Nomenclature?

The discussion recently in the iczn-list (yes, an e-mail discussion about matters related to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature) has been heated by vandals. That is, strong feelings have been expressed about vandals in taxonomy.

The reason there are vandals is because there is a definite ethically correct behaviour in matters nomenclature, and because Zoological Nomenclature is one of the oldest and best functioning globally endorsed anarchistic systems in history. There are rules, but it is up to the users of names to follow the rules. Strangely, it works most of the time. Vandals are those that do not follow the community rules, but abuse the system, taking advantages they should not have. Abusing freedom is inviting control. And that may not in the end make the world better.

Taxonomic vandals are of a few different kinds (my classification).

(1) Hooligans. These folks are absolute nuts about publishing new names. Whether their species exist or not is irrelevant to them. In the most recent example discussed, author A published a description of species B, and then copy pasted the same description for species C. This seems to be a pest among herpetologists and malacologists.

(2) Nominomaniacs. Nominomania is the obsession with scientific names, which in itself is possibly harmless, but there are bad guys (men only) here. Nominomaniacs of the bad kind eat homonyms like caterpillars chew leaves. They make new names for every junior homonym they can find, without checking up the organism, or whether a specialist may not already be concerned with these homonyms. Nominomaniacs are frequently authors of names outside their group of speciality, if they have any.

(3) Mihi-itchers. These people cannot leave any variation in nature without a name. Somehow they also frequently happen to publish a first name for the same species as a colleague is working on. A special case of advanced mihi itch is the Phylocode where you have to put a new name on every clade you may happen to find (I am provocative here). Mihi-itchers, like sneakers, lurk among the posters at conferences, take photos, and save many days of work efficiently and conveniently.

(4) Sneakers. Whenever a specialist has established a descriptive standard for a group, sneakers will copy paste his/her descriptions, make a few changes and apply it on their own species, preferably ones that are already under study by a specialist. Aquarium hobbyists do this, because they have no training in ichthyology and do not know what they are looking at. Students may be tempted to take this easy road as well.

They are not many, maybe 10 or so in the world at any given time, but they upset people considerably. You know these persons because they as a rule do not participate in scientific meetings, usually run their own journal or exploit weaknesses in journals that do not have a strong editorial control, have no research funding, always have specimens from places where nobody else gets a permit to collect, etc.

Why is it so? Taxonomy has no impact factor of interest to society or funding, so why bother?. Psychological factors aside, Nomenclature has one major problem called authorship. It is more or less obligatory to put the name of the person(s) who described a species after its scientific name.

Consider Dicrossus filamentosus (Ladiges, 1958).

Ladiges did a not very good one on this species; it was published as a sort of preliminary description in an aquarium magazine, based on two very dead aquarium specimens without locality, described by a non-specialist. It is a distinctive species, so no real harm done, and there were no specialists on South American cichlids available at the time. Most of the relevant information about the species, including geographical provenance only appeared with my redescription in 1978 (a student paper, not so advanced, but still helpful). Ladiges will forever be cited as the author of the species, although he did not do anything useful with it. Later workers will be more helped by Kullander (1978), which is practically never cited.

I take this particular example to show that even if the scientific basis for a description is very, very weak, it frequently gives more citation and more food for the ego than any other work on that species later. Confounding authorship associated with scientific names with scientific citation is bad in itself, but it also certainly is a major driving force in taxonomic vandalism.

In science elsewhere, bad or boring (like taxonomic papers) papers never get cited again, and their authors are peacefully brought to oblivion. The only way outside taxonomy to obtain a reputation is to work hard to do something useful.

The end result is that we have an extra number of useless names that specialists must consider for the rest of their professional career; we have lots of duplicate work, blocked access to relevant specimens, type specimens deposited in private collections unavailable to specialists, loss of trust in the profession, and in the end uneasiness and unwillingness among professionals to communicate openly about their work.

The Code of Ethics in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, is very straightforward about what behaviour is expected from those making nomenclatural statements. In the case of my lab, we work on the systematics of danionine cyprinid fishes, the genus Puntius, South American cichlids, and in collaboration the fishes of Myanmar and Paraguay. I am not expected to check with others whenever I have a new species in these groups, and there are many of them. Everyone knows that we work on these fishes (or would have known if the Newsletter had existed; see previous blog). You do not have to check with me if you are thinking of describing a new species of goby from the Seychelles. But if I would find a new goby from the Seychelles I would need to check if somebody else might be working on it. And anyone working on any of the above groups is expected to check with me first, and with other colleagues that have known interests in the same area.

Two weeks ago I received a new species of fish; concluding it was new and interesting enough to describe, I checked with another specialist on that family two days ago, and it turned out he has the same species from the same place, so we have to make an informed and friendly decision how to go about it.

The job of the taxonomist is to a large extent to give scientific names to organisms. It is a little reward on top to the sometimes repetitive analytical work. Of course, we all get a little of the mihi itch (mihi means mine; this itch is about appending one’s name to species names), but it easily cured. However, among the many, many scientists in Ichthyology that I respect, all of them were always more concerned with the analysis than with their author status, and more concerned with having a publication that people want to read and use, than having their names cited. That is what science is about.

So, what should we do? Outlaw some people or journals? Permit only certain journals to publish nomenclatural acts? Apply to the Commission for suppression of every name not considered appropriate for whatever reason? Ignore the names published by vandals?

In the end, who judges vandalism? When am I a 100% vandal, or a 10% vandal or perfectly non-vandal, in the eyes of 5%, 50% or 100% of my colleagues? Is this about people or about the Code? Who is more mihi-itchy at the end of the day, the vandal or the vandalised? Ethics cannot be ruled, it can only be demonstrated. So, I would prefer to leave the system open, with the very slight disadvantages it may have. But the Code of Ethics of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature maybe should be more widely known.

What does the Zoological Code say then. I quote the most relevant parts of the Code of Ethics from the ICZN website:

1. Authors proposing new names should observe the following principles …

2. A zoologist should not publish a new name if he or she has reason to believe that another person has already recognized the same taxon and intends to establish a name for it (or that the taxon is to be named in a posthumous work). A zoologist in such a position should communicate with the other person (or their representatives) and only feel free to establish a new name if that person has failed to do so in a reasonable period (not less than a year).

3. A zoologist should not publish a new replacement name (a nomen novum) or other substitute name for a junior homonym when the author of the latter is alive; that author should be informed of the homonymy and be allowed a reasonable time (at least a year) in which to establish a substitute name.

4. No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.

5. Intemperate language should not be used in any discussion or writing which involves zoological nomenclature, and all debates should be conducted in a courteous and friendly manner.

6. Editors and others responsible for the publication of zoological papers should avoid publishing any material which appears to them to contain a breach of the above principles.

Some interesting examples where opinions are strong:

Adamas Huber 1979 replaced by Fenerbahce Özdikmen et al. 2006

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