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”.

So I checked for Leviathan on the super-useful Nomenclator Zoologicus, only to find that indeed it seemed to be, if dubiously, preoccupied:

But it’s really not clear what’s being said here: the relevant page from the printed edition says “Levathan Koch [1841], 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).

But of course the ICZN doesn’t care about taxonomy, far less palaeobiology — only nomenclature.  So the question for us is only this: was the name Leviathan validly published as a scientific name?

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 [25].

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.

Important disclaimer

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.


42 Responses to “Is the new Miocene sperm whale Leviathan validly named?”

  1. It looks, despite the apparent source of the publication, that Koch was intending a taxonomic act and a permanent scientific record. If the publication is valid, and as the nomenclature has been recorded and referenced as a synonym I would assume it to be so, then yes:

    Leviathan Lambert et al 2010 is preoccupied by Leviathan missouriensis Koch 1843.

    One interesting disclaimer here: Some people fancied themselves linguists in those days, many of them obscure or eccentric workers (like Girault) and would have made compound phrases — like scrotum humanum — that are taken in the form of binomial nomenclature, even if they are not actual taxonomic terms. In this case, “Missourium Theristocaulodon” seems likely to be in this form, and is not a taxon per se.

    The only issue here is whether Levathan was validly published, and was emended to Leviathan, as it seems to be the case in the Zoologicus. If so, the emendation may be unnecessary; I am not aware that the ICZN mandated at the time of its enactment “appropriate” spelling that required emendation (automatic or otherwise). If the name Levathan was intended originally, even in error, it should stand. If so, Leviathan Lambert et al. 2010 is not preoccupied.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ed Yong and JP – Research Lab. JP – Research Lab said: Is the new Miocene sperm whale Leviathan validly named?: By now most SV-POW! readers will have heard of Leviathan … […]

  3. I went to Charles Davies Sherborn’s Index Animalium. Levathan Koch 1841 was emended by him in 1844 to Leviathan (the title page of Koch reads ‘1843’, but Sherborn has the publication date as 1844). I believe the citation by Sherborn is the basis for its use in Nomenclator Zoologicus. I don’t have copies in my files of Koch, but was curious about the name Leviathan a few years back when it was used for a dinosaur book title, and sat down at UC Berkeley and read (i.e. struggled with its idiosyncratic misuse of Latin and Greek) Koch’s two monographs. He did, indeed, described the taxon validly with one name, then an emendation. The Lambert et al. 2010 name is preoccupied. You might want to check with BMNH library, and see if they have the Koch publications; I know they’re at the Smithsonian’s library.
    Stephan Pickering / Chofetz Chayim ben-Avraham
    The Dinosaur Fractals Project

  4. Brian Switek Says:

    Interestingly, after Koch sold the remains of his “Missourium” (or “Leviathan” or whatever you prefer to call it) to the British Museum, he created a sea monster out of Basilosaurus bones which he gave various names (“Hydrarchos sillimani”, “H. harlani”, etc.) –

    Koch had a habit of frequently changing the names of his specimens in his pamphlets, and even though I am glad he is getting a bit of attention (he was certainly a unique character) it would be a shame if the newly-described whale had to be renamed because of Koch’s logorrhoea.

    Also, I think I have some of the references you mention, Mike, and I will send over what I have immediately. (Unfortunately I don’t have Koch’s original pamphlet and have never seen it – it is a rare document, indeed.)

  5. Here’s the current ICZN take:

    32.5.1. If there is in the original publication itself, without recourse to any external source of information, clear evidence of an inadvertent error, such as a lapsus calami or a copyist’s or printer’s error, it must be corrected. Incorrect transliteration or latinization, or use of an inappropriate connecting vowel, are not to be considered inadvertent errors.


    33.2.3. Any other emendation is an “unjustified emendation”; the name thus emended is available and it has its own author and date and is a junior objective synonym of the name in its original spelling;

    According to this, it sounds like _Levathan_->_Leviathan_ was unjustified, but _Leviathan_ is still an available name, so the whale’s name is preoccupied either way.

  6. Jocelyn Falconnet Says:

    [quote]and I have never clapped eyes on the crucial Koch (1843) at all.[/quote]

    Koch erect explicitely a new genus – I mean another one – for his so-called [I]Missourium[/I] as [I]Leviathan Missourii[/I].

    BTW: the description and comparison with the [I]Mastodon[/I] is quite funny although not quite exact! ><

    Also, according to Simpson (1943:168): the holotype skeleton had been purchased by the British Museum and mounted for exhibition – as [I]Mammut americanum[/I]. Simpson (1943:168), careful, also added that it was at least the case before the bombing on the museum. This specimen might thus still be in display in London.

    Simpson G.G. 1943. The beginnings of vertebrate paleontology in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 86(1):132-188.

    Reference also found here:

  7. Tim W. Says:

    Could one argue that _Leviathan+ Koch is a nomen oblitum?

  8. Tim W. Says:

    Could one argue that the name _Leviathan_ Koch is a nomen oblitum?

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    If an old name is pronounced a nomen oblitum, it allows a new name to be used for that taxon; but I don’t think it allows a new taxon to be used for the name. (Not sure though, and since it’s now 1:30am I’m going to go to bed now instead of crawling through the ICZN.)

  10. It should be noted that many of Koch’s contemporaries did not regard his work as valid, from Dana’s disregard to both “Missourium” and “Leviathan” [1] to Montague and Peterson’s abject dismissal of his biological expertise [2]. In the former, being the emminent geologist that he was, Dana regards the work of Koch, published in distinct “pamphlets,” in low favor.

    Moreover, it appears, in both [1] and [2], that this material was cobbled together from multiple specimens, often multiple taxa, and from more than one actual region of Alabama. They were then sent around on exhibit, Barnum Brown-style, and it is even more significant that the latter man (Brown) famously exhorted “There’s a sucker born every minute,” to explain his various “biological” specimens (like the Fiji Mermaid) and the gullibility of people to believe them.

    I will actually agree that the nomenclature would be valid if recognized (by contemporaries, although that seems not to be the case), and thus Lambert et al. may need to find a new name.

    [1] Dana, J. D. 1875. On Dr. Koch’s evidence with regard to the contemporaneity of Man and the Mastodon in Missouri. American Journal of Science 9(3rd Series):335-346.
    [2] Montagu, M. F. A. & Peterson, C.B. 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.

  11. Tim W. Says:

    Firstly, sorry about the two messages regarding _Leviathan_ being a possible nomen oblitum – apparently I sent off the draft prematurely before the final message. Oops.

    Secondly, you (Mike) wrote:

    “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…”

    However, unless the new name was accompanied by a description (no matter how brief), then the name _Leviathan_ is a nomen nudum. This happened with the name _Ceratops_ Rafinesque, 1815 which appeared in a list of bird genera, but never received a formal description – and is therefore a nomen nudum. Thus the publication met ICZN criteria, but the name itself did not (no description).

  12. @Tim W.:

    The name in the paper linked above does follow a lengthy (flawed) description, so it’s definitely not a nomen nudum.

  13. J.S. Lopes Says:

    If Leviathan is preoccupied, the solution it’s simple: just rename it as a similar form: Leviathanis, Leviathania, Leviathanius, Leviathanus, Liviathan, Livyathan, etc.

  14. Jaime, I think you mean P. T. Barnum, not Barnum Brown?

  15. Does the work cite a specimen in itself, or had one subsequently cited as a holotype? If not, a name with a description without coordinated (accurately identified) material remains invalid; subsequent identification of the type, if done, is required; has this been done? Was Koch’s material (personally owned and exhibited for much of his later life) ever reposited, split up accurately (as both of my previous cites say it should), and a lectotype established? If not, again, it either should, or the nomenclature is of a naked nature and not available.

  16. Yes, my bad: P. T. rather. Thanks, Grant.

  17. The relevant publication of Koch is available at (and the title page gives a date of 1841). On page 14 he states that “After having examined this subject in all its bearings, Ihave come to the conclusion that the leviathan here alluded to is none other than the Missourium before described, and from this time I shall call it the Missouri Leviathan, (Leviathan
    Missourii.)” It does seem that he did intend it as a proper zoological name. It would have been an unjustified replacement name from the start and Koch himself seems to have gone back to Missourium theristocaulodon by 1845 (see Die Riesenthiere der Urwelt oder das neuentdeckte Missourium Theristocaulodon (Stichelzahn aus Missouri) und die Mastodontoiden im Allgemeinen und Besondern at But yes, it does appear to be validly available.

  18. Indeed, following from my last comment (once it gets past moderation – too many links spoil the filter), the name Leviathan may even pre-date Missourium taxonomically.

  19. William Miller Says:

    ” He proposed three distinct genus names for a single specimen in a space of three years”


    Why would he do that? That seems incredibly confusing and annoying.

  20. Why would he do that?

    Two reasons: (A) He was a complete git, and (B) the idea that names should be fixed after publication was still rather embryonic at the time. Several authors (including many far more respectable than Alfred Koch) replaced ‘unsuitable’ names with ‘better’ ones. Remember, the number of recognised taxa was far smaller then, so the possibility that this might lead to confusion seemed less pressing.

  21. Tim Says:

    Yes, I’m afraid you’re right Matt. Alas, we can’t dismiss _Leviathan_ as a nomen nudum.

  22. Absence of type fixation does, however, seem to impair the nomenclature. The material was privately held, and according to Montagu and Petersen, 1944, appears to be missing or whereabouts unknown, not to mention comprising of tusks, vertebrae, and some limb material of Mammut, limb material (at least) of Mylodon, and some vertebrae and caudals of Zeuglodon (possibly two species). The “Missourium” material where proboscidean looks to be comprised of several individuals, and Koch artificially altered his display/exhibit to be long-bodied, splay-toed, long and broad-tailed, in order to create a “leviathan” from which a hook (his work) could draw “from the waters” of the sediment (mud) he found some of the material in.

    So I ask again: What type specimen is there? Even if he met all other conditions, he must still use a type to bear the name; otherwise, these are nomina nuda.

  23. Article 72: All of Koch’s original material (wherever it may be) constitutes the type material. The requirement for type material to be explicitly designated didn’t come into effect until 1999 so is irrelevant here.

  24. Nathan Myers Says:

    What bothers me is not the possible preoccupation. It’s that “Leviathan” should be reserved for the beast, yet to be unearthed, that ate this one. Whole.

    (Apologies to Larry Niven.)

  25. William Miller Says:

    Ah, yes – “Leviathan” was an interesting story. I wonder if sperm whales in the pre-whaling days would really have been a viable food source for a large predator? It seems they were not that rare, but if it were workable, why did no such predator exist?

    If it is preoccupied, how does the name get changed? And could the ICZN be petitioned to get rid of the dumb Koch name?

  26. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t think the ICZN would accept a petition to suppress Leviathan Koch 1843 — suppression is rarely if ever done on the basis of an old name being dumb, but only on the basis of a newer name having been in widespread use in the literature — which of course Leviathan Lambert et al. 2010 is not, being only a day old.

  27. Same reason why Leviathan Koch 1841 couldn’t be a nomen oblitum – it’s not enough for the old name to be unused, the new name has to also be well entrenched.

    If you’ll forgive me a momentary whinge, it’s only one more of a growing litany of nomenclatural stuff-ups in the glamour mags that could have been easily avoided. In these days of resources like Nomenclator Zoologicus and Google, it’s increasingly difficult to forgive the establishment of homonyms.

  28. Darren Naish Says:

    Leviathan Koch, 1841 is listed as a junior objective synonym of Mammut Blumenbach, 1799 by McKenna & Bell (1997: Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level), a significant and much-used compendium on mammal taxonomy. In other words, Koch’s name is ‘out there’ and well known as a junior synonym. I’ve told Oliver Lambert about this.

    Part of the reason that Koch gave several names to the same thing is that he was a cheat and a showman – he deliberately pretended to have several new species when he only had one, and sometimes pretended that his fossils represented the monsters of antiquity (he gave several names to basilosaur fossils, pretending each time that they represented monstrous sea-serpents).

  29. Darren Naish Says:

    Sorry, _Olivier_ Lambert.

  30. Mike Taylor Says:

    Darren said:

    Leviathan Koch, 1841 is listed as a junior objective synonym of Mammut Blumenbach, 1799 by McKenna & Bell (1997: Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level)

    Surely a junior subjective synonym? It can only be objective if it’s based on the same type material.

  31. Darren Naish Says:

    Sorry, my dumb mistake. Can we pretend it never happened?

  32. Jocelyn Falconnet Says:

    … I just noticed that there is a new, highly non-scientific comment under the Nomenclator Zoologicus entry for ‘Levathan’ (here:

    Damn bots !

  33. Darren Naish Says:

    I just heard back from Olivier. He and his coauthors are aware of the problem and are acting on it.

  34. Dr. Douglas Yanega Says:

    Ahh, I wish I’d seen this blog before I sent my message off to Lambert a few minutes ago – and, based on the comments above, it does sound like Leviathan Koch is available; about the only argument might be regarding what year it was *made* available, and that is irrelevant as far as the homonymy issue. It looks like a homonym.

  35. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Doug. Yes, sorry, I probably should have posted this entry’s address to the ICZN mailing list. Anyway, as you’d have seen from Darren’s comments, it seems that Lambert et al. have been informed, and are working up a response. Which is as it should be.

    At least it wasn’t preoccupied by an insect this time :-)

  36. Some relevant info from the Taxacom mailing list has come through courtesy of Neal Evenhuis regarding the spellings Levathan vs Leviathan. The BHL copy of Koch (1841) I linked to above is the second edition. The first edition had appeared earlier that same year. The first edition includes both spellings, making both potentially available pending a decision by first reviser. The second edition (the one on BHL) uses only the spelling Leviathan, effectively acting as First Reviser and setting the spelling as Leviathan.

  37. Hey Doug! Wow, your fascinating post stirred up a lot of helpful and interesting discussion. At lot of this discussion is way over my expertise, but I learned a lot listening in about how scientists think about and work through these kinds of issues.

    You have a cool blog—I’ll enjoy snooping around when I get some time. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your knowledge.

    With best wishes,

  38. […] Whales hunting whales. I’m not talking about orcas, but of Leviathan melvillii, a perhistoric sperm whale with teeth up to a foot long and 4 inches in diameter. It is thought that this whale may have fed on baleen whales, amongst other things.  Leviathan is, of course a fantastic name for such a formidable sperm whale. Unfortunately, there is some doubt as to whether the name is valid as it seems to have been preoccupied. […]

  39. […] called Leviathan, which I and everyone else wrote about. What you may not have heard about is that the name may not be valid, given that Leviathan had previously been assigned to a mammoth. SV-POW has the story and some […]

  40. […] called Leviathan, which I and everyone else wrote about. What you may not have heard about is that the name may not be valid, given that Leviathan had previously been assigned to a mammoth. SV-POW has the story and some […]

  41. […] Not Exactly Rocket Science for more on Leviathan melvillei SV-POW! for more on why Leviathan melvillei might need a new  name already COSMOS Online for more on […]

  42. […] at the end of June, I pointed out on this blog that the awesome new Miocene sperm whale Leviathan was a junior synonym of Koch’s name […]

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