Sorting out Cetiosaurus nomenclature
March 31, 2009
Today saw the publication of the most startlingly dull paper I’ve ever been involved in (Upchurch et al. 2009) — and remember, I write this as co-author of a paper on the phylogenetic taxonomy of Diplodocoidea. Not only that, but one time when I was practising a conference talk with my wife Fiona as audience, she fell asleep actually while I was speaking. Actually asleep. And yet the new paper beats them all hands-down for boredom. If you don’t believe me, feast your eyes, gloat your soul, on the accursed ugliness of the very title of the new paper: “Case 3472: Cetiosaurus Owen, 1841 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda): proposed conservation of usage by designation of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871 as the type species.” What is it all about?
Well, take a look at the type material of Cetiosaurus:
Yes indeed — the most historically important of all sauropods is based on a set of non-diagnostic uninformative eroded partial mid-to-distal caudal centra. That is because this is the type material of the species which, for complex technical reasons, is the type species of the genus Cetiosaurus. We tend to ignore this fact because the material is clearly rubbish: the taxon C. medius is not valid. Sadly, however, the name C. medius is valid — nomenclaturally valid, even though it’s not taxonomically valid. But the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which governs all zoological nomenclature, is purely a code of nomenclature, and does not take taxonomic considerations such as diagnosability into account. (It can’t, after all: how could the code contain rigorous rules that let you determine whether material is diagnostic, or whether a description is adequate?)
Anyway, the material of C. brevis, C. brachyurus, C. medius and C. longus, all published together (Owen 1842) is all pretty useless; but Phillips (1871) described in detail the much better material of a new species C. oxoniensis, and this is what everyone has meant by the name Cetiosaurus ever since. Upchurch and Martin (2003:215) even explicitly stated that they were provisionally using C. oxoniensis as the de facto type speces, pending a petition to the ICZN to overrule strict priority. And no wonder: the C. oxoniensis material really is way better. For example, check out this dorsal vertebra (which is by no means the best one — just one that I have a convenient photo of):
Today’s new paper is that long-promised petition: in it, we recount the nomenclatural history of the name Cetiosaurus and its species, explain with a big list of references that C. oxoniensis has been overwhemingly used historically and is overwhelmingly used today, and ask the Commission to legitimise this universal behaviour.
Will they do it? We actually don’t know, although I can’t think of any reason why they shouldn’t. The process now is that interested workers can send their comments, either in favour of or against our proposal, to the Executive Secretary of the ICZN (address at the end of the PDF), and these comments are weighed before a decision is returned. From my informal sampling of previous petitions, the process seems to take between one and two years. So we’re probably stuck in type-species limbo until 2011. Oh well — at least the main step has been taken.
So. I’m not exactly as excited about this paper as I was of Xenoposeidon — don’t worry, we won’t be launching a nine-post Cetiosaurus Type Species Redesignation Week — nor as pleased with it as I am with a certain in-press paper that all three of us SV-POW!sketeers are very much looking forward to because REDACTED. But it’s a dirty job that someone had to do.
- Owen, Richard. 1841. A description of a portion of the skeleton of the Cetiosaurus, a gigantic extinct saurian reptile occurring in the oolitic formations of different portions of England. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 3: 457-462.
- Owen, Richard. 1842b. Report on British fossil reptiles, Part II. Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 11: 60-204.
- Phillips, John. 1871. Geology of Oxford and the valley of the Thames. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Upchurch, Paul, and John Martin. 2003. The anatomy and taxonomy of Cetiosaurus (Saurischia, Sauropoda) from the Middle Jurassic of England. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23: 208-231.
- Upchurch, Paul, John Martin, and Michael P. Taylor. 2009. Case 3472: Cetiosaurus Owen, 1841 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda): proposed conservation of usage by designation of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871 as the type species. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 66 (1): 51-55.
Update (3 April 2009)
Here’s that photograph of a leopard seal pulling the head right off a penguin you ordered:
Acknowledgement: I got this photo from http://img238.imageshack.us/img238/873/1627.jpg. Thanks to “Paul A.” (see comment below) I now know that it is the work of Paul Nicklen who has a stellar collection of photographs on his own site. This picture is entitled The Death Shake, and is the 10th of the 29 pictures in his leopard seal gallery.
Relevant Update (31 August 2010)
I should have noted this long ago, but back in July 2009 (more than a year ago!) Paul Barrett and Pete Galton both published comments in the BZN that were supportive of our petition.