Is the new Miocene sperm whale Leviathan validly named?
June 30, 2010
By now most SV-POW! readers will have heard of Leviathan melvillei, the big-toothed Miocene sperm whale that was named in Nature today (Lambert et al. 2010) — if not, see for example the Discover Magazine blog article for the basics.
My first thought was “Wow, that is one awesome animal.”
My second was, “I can’t believe no-one’s used the genus name Leviathan before”.
But it’s really not clear what’s being said here: the relevant page from the printed edition says “Levathan Koch , Descr. of Missourium, 1840, 13 (as Leviathan p. 14). — Mamm”. The use of italics suggests that the NZ editors considered the name as nomenclaturally valid, but the relation between the names Levathan [sic] and Leviathan is not clear.
Looking around a bit more, I found Lindsay (1991) which happens to discuss the specimen in question, and at least some of the publications. The first page of this article is freely available and says:
The mastodon’s remains had been discovered by Albert Koch in 1840 on the Pomme de Terre River in Benton or Hickory County in Missouri, and possibly parts were from Jefferson County as well. A skeleton was assembled later that year in Koch’s St. Louis museum and went on display as the Missourium or Missouri Leviathan. Koch also referred to the specimen as Levathan [sic] Missourii (1841) and Leviathan Missouriensis (1843), by which time he had also given it the name Missourium Theristocaulodon on account of “its enormous sickle shaped tusks”.
[Update, 1st July. It's now apparent that Lindsay (1991) overlooked a passage in the 1841 first edition of Koch's pamphlet in which he established the name Leviathan two years before the 5th edition in which its name was included in the expanded title. Thanks to Christopher Taylor for pointing this out.]
The first thing to note is of course that Koch was a truly horrible taxonomist. He proposed three distinct genus names for a single specimen in a space of three years, and as in fact became apparent subsequently, they are all junior synonyms of Mammut, the mastodon. The second thing to note is that he was a truly horrible palaeobiologist, concluding for spurious reasons that his specimen was an aquatic animal (hence his use of the name of the biblical sea-monster).
I don’t know whether Lindsay addressed this question, as I only have the first page of his article (and if anyone who has access can send me the whole thing I’ll be grateful). But now that I knew to search for the relevant date, 1843, I was able to find Montagu and Peterson (1944), which contains the answer:
Sometime during 1843 Koch took his collections to Ireland where they, together with the Missourium, were exhibited at Dublin. Here appeared the “Fifth edition, enlarged,” of his pamphlet together with a new title-page and a completely rewritten and revised text .
And note 25 is the full reference:
Description of the Missourium Theristocaulodon (Koch) or Missouri Leviathan (Leviathan Missouriensis,) together with its supposed habits, and the Indian Traditions: also, comparison on the Whale, Crcocodile, and Missourium, with the Leviathan, as described in the 41st Chapter of the Book of Job; by Albert Koch. Printed by C. Crookes, 87 Chapel Street, Dublin: 28 pp., 8°, 1843.
It seems apparent from the typography here — with the words “Leviathan Missouriensis” being the only words of the title set in italics — that Koch was indeed publishing this as a scientific name.
Just to reiterate: if the name was validly published according to the tenets of the ICZN, then the genus name Leviathan Koch 1843 is nomenclaturally valid even though taxonomically it’s junk, being a junior objective synonym of Levathan Koch 1841 and a junior subjective synonym of Mammut Blumenbach 1799. And if it’s nomenclaturally valid, then that name is preoccupied, and Lambert et al. will need to propose a replacement name for their awesome whale.
All of this is based on glimpses of single pages and suchlike of the various relevant papers: I don’t have the full text of Lindsay (1991) or Montagu and Peterson (1944), and I have never clapped eyes on the crucial Koch (1843) at all. So it’s perfectly possible that I’ve overlooked something, and the genus Leviathan Koch 1843 was not validly published. This should definitely by confirmed or denied by someone who has a copy of that publication.
But at the moment, things aren’t looking good for Leviathan Lambert et al. 2010.
- Koch, Albert. 1843. Description of the Missourium Theristocaulodon (Koch) or Missouri Leviathan (Leviathan Missouriensis,) together with its supposed habits, and the Indian Traditions: also, comparison on the Whale, Crcocodile, and Missourium, with the Leviathan, as described in the 41st Chapter of the Book of Job. C. Crookes, Dublin. 28 pages.
- Lambert, Olivier, Giovanni Bianucci, Klaas Post, Christian de Muizon, Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, Mario Urbina and Jelle Reumer. 2010. The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru. Nature 466:105-108. doi:10.1038/nature09067
- Lindsay, William. 1991. “Mammoth” Task. Curator: The Museum Journal 34(4):261-272.
- Montagu, M. F. Ashley, and C. Bernard Peterson. 1944. The Earliest Account of the Association of Human Artifacts with Fossil Mammals in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 87(5):407-419.