As we all know, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is a large and intimidating document.  As a result, zoologists naming new animals often do not read it in its entirety (I know I haven’t).  It’s probably because of this that many of the more avoidable nomenclatural mistakes occur.

Whatever might or might not eventually be possible in terms of simplifying the Code, everyone recognises that that would be a huge job, and something that would take years to do.  So let’s ignore that possibility for now.

In the short term, what would be much more useful would be if someone could work up a very short document — no more than a single page of A4 and hopefully much shorter — that states in simple bullet-points what MUST be done to ensure that a new name is valid.  Then there would be no excuse for zoologists venturing into nomenclature for the first time not to read such a document — let’s call it the ICZN Cheat Sheet.

Neural spine morphology along the vertebral series of Bonitasaurua salgadoi (MPCA-460) in anterior view. From Gallina 2011, doi:10.1590/S0001-37652011005000001

Because it’s easier to steer a moving ship, I wrote to the ICZN email list this morning proposing an initial set of bullet points.  I did not for a moment expect that they were complete, consistent or even necessarily correct; but I hoped that they could at least serve as a starting point for a very quick process of putting such a list together.

I am pleased to say that response on the list was fairly positive, and at the suggestion of one of the list members I have now posted the in-progress checklist as a page on this site, having revised it in accordance with several suggestions.

If you’re interested in contributing to this effort — helping us to derive a clear, concise and correct one-page guide to naming new zoological genera and species — please head over to the page and comment there.  (Comments on this post are closed, to avoid splitting discussion across two places.)

I wasn’t going to write about this, partly because it’s so darn depressing, but mostly because in the wake of this comment it seemed like the “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” paper was being withdrawn, and to quote something Mike said off-list, I was happier about the retraction than I was sad about the implied revisionism. But then Henry Galliano wrote:

Although the paper has still not been completed, no changes have been made altering it conclusions. Interestingly, despite the 4000 recent hits and downloads from our website, it is surprising no evidence has been submitted challenging our claims.

If it’s really supposed to be an internal manuscript/press release type thing, why brag about the lack of criticism? Did it ever occur to you that we might be holding off out of respect, to give you an avenue of retreat where you could perhaps salvage a few scraps of dignity? But if you’re going to call us out for not tearing apart this joke of a paper, then stand by.

In the previous post, Mike wrote:

In other words, we’re being asked to believe that the new specimens are more different from all other Morrison diplodocids than any of them are from each other.  And yet we’re brought to this conclusion by the very animals that are apparently not as similar.  It’s as though I discovered dogs, and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs and house-cats are are all the same species.

No, it’s way, way worse. Because, claims of the authors to the contrary, “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” is not some kind of morphological outlier among Morrison diplodocids. From where I stand, it looks like it’s right in the middle. So it’s as though I discovered ocelots and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs, and housecats were all the same thing.

If no apatosaurs had ever been found, and they got the first one, and then concluded that all the apatosaurines were one taxon and all the diplodocines were another, that would at least make some kind of sense, in that they’d be drawing their taxonomic distinctions along actual phylogenetic lines. Then it would be a fairly straightforward lumper/splitter fight. In the actual event, I’m sad to say that it’s the “A. brontodiplodocus” proponents against the reality-based community.

Back to Henry’s statement about the “surprising” lack of evidence to the contrary: dude, don’t do this to yourself. We thought you were on the right track with the implied retraction from your earlier comment. You’ve been one of the white hats, but if you go down this dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will!

It’s not at all “surprising” that no one has submitted evidence to the contrary. The evidence is in the 133 years’ worth of careful morphological and phylogenetic work that you blew right past on the way to nominating your new animal, at least implicitly, as TEH MOSTEST IMPORTANT DIPLODOCID EVAR!!11eleventy! Your material is awesome, and I don’t doubt that you’ve got a new animal on your hands, but the idea that it is one of only two diplodocids in the Morrison–or worldwide–and all the others are morphs of the same thing, is both suspiciously convenient for you, and so outrageously extreme that it would take a mountain of work (that is not presented in the paper) to demonstrate. In addition to the gross, obvious morphological differences, it would be really nice to know why there are geographic, stratigraphic, and paleoecological differences among the other Morrison diplodocids. Doesn’t the work of Dodson et al. (1980), Turner & Peterson (1999), and Foster (2003, 2007), just for starters, count for anything? Instead of boasting about the uncontested status of your claims, how about doing enough work to convince us to take them seriously in the first place? People who take the time to do reasonable morphological comparisons and phylogenetic work that doesn’t hail from an opium den have better things to do than exhaustively smack down every act of Hoser taxonomy that leaks onto teh intarwebz in the first two days. Give us a minute to get over our collective shock, and in the meantime, make up your mind about what the document is. Is it supposed to be considered published, or not? If so, it’s fair game for criticism, but don’t deny that you’re at least attempting acts of taxonomy. If not, don’t beg us to criticize it. You may get a lot more than you wished for.

Sadly, this will probably go down in popular opinion as a clash between academic and commercial paleontologists, or between credentialed paleontologists and hobbyists.  It shouldn’t. I don’t care if someone is employed by a university or a rock shop, or whether they have any degrees in the field. All I care about is the quality of the work. (Repeatability, which necessitates that specimens be properly curated in accredited museums to ensure perpetual access to future researchers, is an inherent component of that quality.) Jack McIntosh is a physicist, and as far as I know never got any formal training in paleontology. But that’s irrelevant, because he taught himself by looking at literally thousands of specimens and reading everything he could get his hands on, and because his papers are as exhaustively researched as one could hope for. As Robert McKee wrote of Steven Pressfield, you can’t read Jack’s papers without being overwhelmed by “the work, the work, all the work” behind them. In contrast, I couldn’t read the “A. brontodiplodocus” paper without be overwhelmed by the complete disregard–and indeed implicit contempt–for all of the work that people from Cope and Marsh to Jerry Harris and David Lovelace have done on the admittedly knotty problem of Morrison sauropod diversity.

Taxonomy is facing a crisis, brought on by two things: at least for some charismatic clades, Hoser taxonomists potentially outnumber actual taxonomists (although even one is bad enough, as herpetologists have found); and there is essentially no filtering on what counts. Anyone in the world can whip up whatever uninformed BS they want and send a certain number of hardcopies off to libraries, and according to the ICZN their crappy work counts and the rest of us just have to deal with it. And the problem is only going to get worse in the shiny digital future as electronic publication removes the already minor inconvenience associated with “publishing” acts of taxonomy. I can think of a handful of possible outcomes:

  • Working scientists are going to bog down in endlessly putting out the fires of Hoser taxonomy.
  • We’ll install some kind of de jure filter to deal with Hoser taxonomy.
  • We’ll collectively decide to ignore acts of Hoser taxonomy, which will constitute a de facto filter.

For my part, I think the ICZN’s policy of noninterference in cases like this is taking a sound principle to the point of lunacy. It’s like I walked up to a policeman, punched him in the nose, and told him he couldn’t arrest me because my assault counted as protected speech (on reflection, I’ll bet this actually happens in Berkeley). Of the options above, I suspect that we’ll end up with the third, and I won’t be entirely happy about that, because I also suspect that some credentialed academics will want to ignore the work of commercial paleontologists and hobbyists just because they’re not credentialed academics. Which would be wrong. We want to sort the work based on its quality, not who produced it.

Which is an interesting position for me to come to, given what I’ve said here in the past about filters. It was easier to deal with the thought of completely open publication when the waste products weren’t landing on my lawn. But I still think that this is the way things are going. In which case, post-hoc criticism of self-published works is often going to be the only filter we get. The comment thread is open. Filter away!


  • Dodson, P., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Bakker, R.T., and McIntosh, J.S. 1980. Taphonomy and paleoecology of the dinosaur beds of the Jurassic Morrison Formation. Paleobiology 6:208-232.
  • Foster, J.R. 2003. Paleoecological analysis of the vertebrate fauna of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), Rocky Mountain Region, U.S.A. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Bulletin 23.
  • Foster, J.R. 2007. Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Indiana University Press. 389pp.
  • Turner, C.E., Peterson, F., 1999. Biostratigraphy of dinosaurs in the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of the Western Interior, U.S.A. Pp. 77–114 in Gillette, D.D. (Ed.), Vertebrate Paleontology in Utah. Utah Geological Survey Miscellaneous Publication 99-1.

Well, this is frustrating.  Over on the VRTPALEO mailing list, all the talk at the moment is of the new paper by Henry Galiano and Raimund Albersdörfer (2010), describing their rather comically named new species Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus.  And to be fair, the material they’re describing is sensational, and the photographs in the paper are pretty good.


Galiano and Albersdorfer (2010:fig 10A-B): Above, cervical vertebrae 7-10 of Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus specimen DQ-TY; below, corresponding cervical vertebrae of Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, modified from Hatcher (1901: plate III)


But I don’t want to talk about that.

There are other things I do want to talk about, but I can’t help feeling that whatever else we cover here at the moment, everyone is going to be thinking “Yes, but what about Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus?”  So I don’t think I can go on to write about the things I want to before we’ve at least acknowledged the existence of this paper.

And yet, and yet …  I have so many problems with this paper, even before we get to the controversial part, namely the conclusion that Diplodocus, Barosaurus, Apatosaurus, SupersaurusSuuwassea, Tornieria and Eobrontosaurus are all congeneric with Amphicoelias — more precisely, conspecific with the single species Amphicoelias altus.

Aside from the a priori unlikelihood of that, we have these problems:

  • First, and maybe most important, the specimens described in this paper are all privately owned, so whatever conclusions might be gleaned from examining them are not replicable by other scientists.  For the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, that’s a deal-breaker right there (and I am in full agreement).
  • Second, the new paper doesn’t seem to be published: at least, no-one’s yet claimed that it exists in numerous identical hardcopies, so for ICZN purposes the new name is a nomen nudum.  (That will surely change, though: I am confident that Dinosauria International, LLC are perfectly capable of printing off a hundred copies and sending them out to libraries.)
  • Third, the paper doesn’t seem to have been peer-reviewed: at least, there’s nothing in the acknowledgements that indicates that it was.  It doesn’t seem to have been edited in anything like the usual sense either.
  • Fourth, there is mechanical evidence of enormous sloppiness in the composition of the paper.  For example, many cited papers are not included in the REFERENCES CITED section, and most of the references that are included are not in fact cited in the paper.  As an example, my own Taylor et al. (2009) is cited but not referenced, while Taylor and Naish (2005) is referenced but not cited.  Lots of Upchurch papers in the bibliography are never cited.  That doesn’t give me confidence about the rest of the work.
  • Likewise, the paper is rife with typos and grammar errors, such as this from page 28: “A. louisae is by far the most widely acclaimed example, and B. excelsus skeleton mounted and exhibited in the Peabody museum. Despite the familiarity of these Apatosaurus specimens various aspects of it [sic] skeleton remain poorly known.”  Not a killer, but again it doesn’t give me confidence.
  • brontodiplodocus” is a stupid name.

Against that backdrop, consider the radical taxonomic hypothesis.  All Morrison formation diplodocids (and some from elsewhere) are considered to belong to a single species, Amphicoelias altus … except for the new specimens, which belong to the new and separate species A. brontodiplodocus.  In other words, we’re being asked to believe that the new specimens are more different from all other Morrison diplodocids than any of them are from each other.  And yet we’re brought to this conclusion by the very animals that are apparently not as similar.  It’s as though I discovered dogs, and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs and house-cats are are all the same species.

So this is not just a matter of extreme taxonomic lumping: it’s weirder than that.  It’s “all the other stuff is just a single species except the one we’ve discovered which is different”.

The point

As Tom Holtz is fond of saying, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.  I’m not going to come out and say it’s impossible that all Morrison diplodocids except the new specimens were conspecific.  But if I were the one setting out to propose such a heterodox hypothesis, I would do myself every possible favour: I’d do it from properly accessioned specimens in public museums, I’d publish in a recognised peer-reviewed journal, I’d take care to get my nomenclature right, match up my citations and references, and generally dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Until that’s done with this new material, I’m not sure there’s much point in investing a lot more effort in evaluating the phylogenetic/taxonomic claims.

(Henry, I know you’re an occasional reader here.  Sorry to be so negative, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to call ’em as I see ’em.)


A bit frightening to realise it’s been more than a month since the last SV-POW! post.  We have some excuse for that: I am just back from a fortnight’s holiday with my family, and shortly before that Matt was at a conference in Uruguay.  Still, a whole month?

And this post is going to be disappointingly short and off-topic — it’s just a bit of housekeeping really.

Back 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 Leviathian which he introduced as a more than usually stupid synonym of Mammut, the mastodon.  (See the original piece for the gory details.)

I am pleased to note that this has now been resolved: the authors of the new Leviathan paper have published a short corrigendum proposing the replacement name Livyatan, resulting in the new combination Livyatan melvillei.  Since the corrigendum is so short, here it is in its entirety:

The genus name Leviathan, proposed in this Letter for a new fossil physeteroid from the Miocene of Peru, is preoccupied by Leviathan Koch, 1841 (ref. 1), a junior subjective synonym of Mammut Blumenbach, 1799 (ref. 2). We propose here a replacement name Livyatan gen. nov. The type species is placed in this genus to form the binomial Livyatan melvillei. The diagnosis and content of the new genus follow our Letter. ‘Livyatan’ is a Hebrew name applied to large marine monsters in popular and mythological stories. We thank M. P. Taylor and D. Yanega for bringing this to our attention.

It’s nice to get a mention, though a shame they weren’t able to include a link to SV-POW!.  Probably Nature‘s guidelines don’t allow that — they wouldn’t be alone — and in any case we’ve hardly been a friend to the Nature Publishing Group, so maybe we’d have even less reason to expect any love from them :-)

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.


A comment by Charles Epting on the recent article about self-publication led me to check the relevant section of the draft Phylocode, which I’ve read once or twice before but not recently enough for this to have hit me with the force it ought:

From Chapter II. Publication, and specifically Article 4. Publication Requirements:

4.2. Publication, under this code, is defined as distribution of text (but not sound), with or without images. To qualify as published, works must be peer-reviewed, consist of numerous (at least 50 copies), simultaneously obtainable, identical, durable, and unalterable copies, some of which are distributed to major institutional libraries (in at least five countries on three continents) so that the work is generally accessible as a permanent public record to the scientific community, be it through sale or exchange or gift, and subject to the restrictions and qualifications in the present article.


4.3. The following do not qualify as publication: (a) dissemination of text or images solely through electronic communication networks (such as the Internet) or through storage media (such as CDs, diskettes, film, microfilm and microfiche) that require a special device to read.

I am … flabbergasted, if that’s the word I want.  (I always want to spell that with an “h” after the “g”.)  This language is obviously derived from what’s in the ICZN — for example, “must have been produced in an edition containing simultaneously obtainable copies by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies” becomes “must consist of numerous (at least 50 copies), simultaneously obtainable, identical, durable, and unalterable copies”.

And the result is that, just like the ICZN, the draft Phylocode does not recognise electronic publication.

Just think about that.  It means that if you define a clade in most of the PLoS journals, it won’t count (unless the journal does one of its inkjet-and-staples special print runs for you).  It also means that any clades you define in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London will not count when the initial online article is published, but only when the later printed edition comes out.  In other words, it means that both the science journals that are growing most quickly in influence and prestige and the oldest science journal in the world will both be useless for phylogenetic nomenclature.

I am sure that’s not what the Phylocode authors want.

That’s particularly true in light of the code’s further requirement that in order to be valid, clade definitions need to be registered.  Really, once a name is officially registered in the Phylocode database and its definition is in a paper published by a reputable publisher and existing in thousands of bit-for-bit-identicial copies in every country in the world, what else is needed for stability?  Fifty stapled inkjet copies?

It seems particularly startling in light of the fact that even the notoriously slow-moving ICZN seems now to be recognising that electronic publishing is inevitable; it would be pretty horrible if by the time the Phylocode is finally implemented, the ICZN has accepted its electronic publishing amendment and the Phylocode is seen to be trailing behind the ICZN in recognising the reality of the world we live in.  (For anyone who is not yet convinced of that reality, I recommend *cough* Taylor 2009, which is a pleasantly easy read.)

Is it too late?  Can the Phylocode be fixed before it’s implemented?  Can it just be done, or will it need lengthy discussion first?  If this doesn’t get fixed, will anyone take the Phylocode seriously?  Is there even a serious argument for keeping the Article 4.2 language as it is now?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  Does anyone else out there?

FIGURE 27. Proximal caudal vertebrae (FMNH PR 2209) of Rapetosaurus krausei in A, anterior view; B, posterior view; C, D, left lateral view. Abbreviations: posl, postspinal lamina; prsl, prespinal lamina; pozg, postzygapophysis. Scale bar equals 3 cm. (Curry Rogers 2009:fig. 27. I'm not sure what part C of this figure is doing here, since it's identical to the rightmost portion of part D. I don't just mean similar, I mean the identical photograph.)

In other news …

I am astounded at the lack of response to University of California vs. Nature, which seems to me just about the most significant thing that’s happened in the world of academic literature since, well, forever.  Can it really be that everyone else’s response is, and I quote, “meh”?


The big noise on the Dinosaur Mailing List at the moment is this thread about Rob Gay’s newly self-published book Notes on Early Mesozoic Theropods, which you can buy from print-on-demand house  (You can also pay to download a PDF if you prefer.)

The interesting thing about about this book is that it contains nomenclatural acts — specifically it names the new theropod Kayentavenator elysiae.  But is this act valid according to the ICZN?  Opinions differ.  The fact that the work was self-published is irrelevant — the Code simply doesn’t care about that.  Beyond this, in the book itself, Gay contends that:

Those that are concerned about the naming of a new genus in this format should not be. The availability and distribution requirements are more than met—the relevant institutions have received a copy for their records. In addition “Notes on Early Mesozoic Theropods” will remain available to all who wish to purchase it online, as well as those stores that chose to carry it, for the foreseeable future—far surpassing the availability of many other high profile publications to those anywhere on the globe.

He feels that this satisfies the relevant articles of the code:

8.1. Criteria to be met. A work must satisfy the following criteria:

  • 8.1.1. it must be issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record,
  • 8.1.2. it must be obtainable, when first issued, free of charge or by purchase, and
  • 8.1.3. it must have been produced in an edition containing simultaneously obtainable copies by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies.

The first thing to say is that Gay would have done himself a favour if his preface had discussed these articles specifically and explained how he felt they were fulfilled: by making only the more general statement above, he’s left matters more open to discussion; or at least forfeited the opportunity to get in a good, strong, opening statement in the inevitable debate.

My own feeling, based on a couple of years on the ICZN mailing list and having witnessed many such discussions between the Commissioners and other specialist nomenclaturists, is that a print-on-demand publication like this does not meet requirement 8.1.3 (“simultaneously obtainable copies by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies”) — it’s because of this requirement that PLoS ONE has had to adopt its frankly rather silly policy of printing 50 hardcopies of each article it publishes that contains nomenclatural acts, rather than just printing copies on demand for anyone who wants them.

[There has also been some talk on the list about whether this book counts as published under Article 8.6, “Works produced after 1999 by a method that does not employ printing on paper”, but there’s no room for debate about that.  That Article states that such a work “must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself”, which is not the case for this book.]

So what?

But the real question is: so what?  The Commission will never produce a ruling on this — it just doesn’t do that, unless presented with a formal petition to conserve a subsequently published name for the same taxon.  So in practice, whatever the code says, the reality is that the validity of the name Kayentavenator elysiae will — like the validity of all other names — be determined by whether and how it actually gets used in subsequent work.

In short, it comes down to this: when the next paper comes out on that animal, will it use Gay’s name, or will the worker in question erect his own name for the same animal and claim that it has priority as the first validly published name?

And that in turn comes down to — let’s be frank — the personality of that next worker.  We all know of scientists whose goal seems to be to get their name on as many publications and taxa as possible; we all know others who are more concerned with giving credit where it’s due.  It seems strange that something like the effective validity of a zoological name should be determined by a personality, but that’s how it looks.

As a side-issue, the way I read this is that Gay has done himself a huge disfavour by charging a fee to download the PDF version of his book.  If he wants his work to be accepted, then the best way is to make sure anyone who is remotely interested can get get hold of it with minimal inconvenience and at zero cost.  It may seem odd, but the truth is that Kayentavenator elysiae‘s chances of survival are dependent far more on marketing than on any other factor; so the PDFs should be made freely and easily available.

The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!

Tim Williams was one of several commenters on the DML to make this point:

This is a HUGE concern.  Especially because advances in technology mean that self-publication is now much cheaper than it used to be.  All you need is a computer and a printer, and off you go.

This has been true for some time. If anything, it’s surprising that we don’t see a lot more rogue taxonomy than we do, especially in a field as charismatic as dinosaur palaeontology. For some reason, extant animals seem (so far) to have suffered much more from this than we have — see for example Raymond Hoser, whose self-published taxonomic works have been widely referred to as “taxonomic vandalism” and whose name has been used in the term “Hoser taxonomy”.

I think we’re deluding ourselves if we think this isn’t coming to dinosaur palaeo.

The widely expressed fear is that “anyone, regardless of knowledge and abilities, will be able to create valid taxa without any restraints” (Dan Chure to the DML).  Because “when it comes to what constitutes a published work, Article 8 of the ICZN Code is so vague and permissive that it is laughably easy to meet the criteria” (Tim Williams again).

All true.

Unfortunately, it’s not a simple matter of tightening the language up. Even if the ICZN didn’t move so agonisingly slowly, it’s not really possible to give a rigorous definition of “valid publication”. You could come up with whatever form of words you wanted, and I (if I were sufficiently unethical) could find a way to make an end-run around it.

In particular, requiring peer-review (while a step in the right direction) would not solve the problem: then you have to define what “peer-review” means, and as we’ve seen in certain articles published in in-house journals in recent years, that concept is also slippery.

Here’s where I think this is going. Ultimately, the validity or otherwise of names is always decided by the working taxonomic (and more broadly biological) community. Until recently, the broader community has been able to delegate the process to journals in most cases, because it was easy to see what a “journal” was: it had a publisher, it was printed on glossy paper, and it came out on a regular schedule. It was easy to see whether a given work was in a journal or not.

That is changing very fast. By most of the criteria above, PLoS ONE is not a “journal” (no publisher but itself, no printing on paper, and no regular schedule) yet I don’t think anyone is going to claim it’s not a journal. Although I think PLoS ONE is a wonderful thing (I’ll be sending my own work there), one of its deleterious side-effects is that it, along with Palaeontologia Electronica and others, has shifted people’s ideas of what is “published”. One can easily imagine, say, a museum setting up its own PLoS-like journal — maybe a reputable one, maybe a less reputable one. From there it’s a short slide to a department, a small group or even an individual setting up his own journal. We have to face the facts that (A) it’s going to be hard to say what is and isn’t a “journal” and (B) we have no way of checking, in general, that “peer-review” is meaningful and adequate.

So I see only two possible paths.

One is that names will get published here, there and everywhere — ultimately even on blogs (although we don’t plan to go down that path here on SV-POW!) — and it will be up to the community to determine what is and isn’t counted as valid.

The other possibility is that a formal name-registration database like ZooBank comes swinging in to save the day, and only registered names are considered valid (or only registered names and those published before, say, 2012).

Unfortunately, ZooBank seems to be the only candidate registration system in town, and it’s in trouble: grotesquely underfunded, the work of basically one person, consequently well behind schedule and by no means ready technically or organisationally to do what it’s intended to do.  (I mean no criticism of any individual in saying this, but those are the facts.)

The way forward?

It seems that nomenclatural anarchy is inevitable unless something like ZooBank takes off rapidly.  So if I were rich and influential, one of the main things I’d be doing would be to pour that money and influence into ZooBank, getting it up to speed as soon as possible and making sure the infrastructure is in place to handle a lot of regsitrations really quickly.  Because the current de facto approach of delegating the assessment of legitimacy to journals is on the way out: I give it less than ten years.

But given that science is chronically underfunded, and zoology funded less than most sciences, and zoological nomenclature less than most of the rest of the zoology, I am not optimistic than this can be made to fly.  the bottom line for ZooBank is that it’s not anyone’s full-time or primary job; and until it is, there’s always going to be something else more urgent that pushes out this work that is merely important.  (Actually it’s urgent, too, but because the deadlines are soft rather than hard, the urgency isn’t apparent — we’ll just all wake up one day and find that they’ve passed.)

I’m not happy about it, but my prediction is: nomenclatural anarchy.  For sure, names published in JVP will start out with a better chance than names published in print-on-demand books at, but that’s going to become a sliding scale rather than the clear black-and-white distinction we’ve been used to.

How bad is it?

I don’t know.  The truth is that lots of nomenclatural decisions are made by the community already, and somehow we all seem to survive.  I recently demonstrated, I thought conclusively, that the species formerly known as “Brachiosaurusbrancai cannot be considered congeneric with the Brachiosaurus type species B. altithorax, and must be considered to belong to its own genus Giraffatitan (Taylor 2009); but whether that reassignment is adopted is for the community to decide over the next few years.  I was disappointed to see that Chure et al. (2010), for poorly explained reasons, rejected this name; and I was pleased to see that Sander et al. (2010) accepted it.  But only time will tell whether it sticks.  And yet, somehow, we survive despite all this uncertainty.

Will it be so terrible if, in the same way, the published works of the community determine which nomenclatural acts are considered validly published?  Maybe not.


Third dorsal vertebra (FMNH PR 2209) of Rapetosaurus krausei in A, anterior view; B, posterior view; C, right lateral view. Abbreviations: acpl, anterior centroparapophyseal lamina; cprl, centroprezygapophyseal lamina; dp, diapophysis; pcdl, posterior centrodiapophyseal lamina; podl, postzygodiapophyseal lamina; posl, postspinal lamina; pozg, postzygapophysis; pp, parapophysis; ppdl, paradiapophyseal lamina; prdl, prezygodiapophyseal lamina; prpl, prezygoparapophyseal lamina; prsl, prespinal lamina; przg, prezygapophysis; spdl, spinodiapophyseal lamina. Scale bar equals 3 cm. (Curry Rogers 2009:fig. 16)



After a completely barren 2008, this year is turning out to be a good one for me in terms of publications.  Today sees the publication of Taylor (2009b), entitled Electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable, and will be accepted by the taxonomic community with or without the endorsement of the code — one of those papers where, if you’ve read the title, you can skip the rest of the paper.   (Although on that score, my effort is knocked into a cocked hat by Hulke 1880.)

The message of the paper will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the Shiny Digital Future thread on this site; as indeed will parts of the text, as the paper is basically a more carefully worked and cohesive form of an argument that I’d previously spread across half a dozen blog posts, a similar number of emails on the ICZN mailing list and any number of comments on other people’s blogs.  The sequence of section headings in the paper tells its own story:

Background: the availability of the name Darwinius masillae
The Code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance
Paper journals are going away
The time to act is now
Electronic documents are different from electronic media
We must come to terms with the ubiquity of PDF
The current rules are too hard to get right
Background: the availability of the name Darwinius masillae
The Code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance
Paper journals are going away
The time to act is now
Electronic documents are different from electronic media
We must come to terms with the ubiquity of PDF
The current rules are too hard to get right

And that conclusion reads as follows:

While we were looking the other way, the digital revolution has happened: everyone but the ICZN now accepts electronic publication. The Code is afforded legitimacy by workers and journals only because it serves them; if we allow it to become anachronistic then they will desert it – or, at best, pick and choose, following only those provisions of the Code that suit them. Facing this reality, the Code has no realistic option but to change – to recognise electronic publishing as valid.

I have no detailed recommendations to make regarding the recently proposed amendments to the Code (ICZN, 2008). Instead I ask only this simple question: will the Code step up to the plate and regulate electronic publications as well as printed publications? Because this is the only question that remains open. Simply rejecting electronic publication is no longer a valid option.

Which I’m sure is familiar rhetoric to long-time SDF advocates, but which I hope will rattle a few cages in the more conservative ranks of specialist taxonomists.  I think it’s a very promising sign that BZN, the official journal of the ICZN, is prepared to publish this kind of advocacy — they didn’t even ask me to tone down the language.  I hope it indicates that in high places, they are sensing which way the wind is blowing.

Here’s a reminder of why electronic publishing is so desirable: figure 3 from Sereno et al.’s (2007) paper on the bizarre skull of the rebbachisaurid Nigersaurus:

Sereno et al. (2007:fig. 3): Nigersaurus taqueti, including photographs of cervical, dorsal and caudal vertebrae in left lateral view.

Sereno et al. (2007:fig. 3): Nigersaurus taqueti, including photographs of cervical, dorsal and caudal vertebrae in left lateral view.

Let me remind you that this was a paper about skulls — vertebrae were not even on the agenda.  Yet click through the image (go on, you have to) and you will see them each presented in glorious high-resolution detail.  That paper was of course published in the PLoS ONE — a journal that, because it is online only, can provide this quality of figure reproduction, which shames even the very best of printed journals.  To see printed-on-paper figures this detailed and informative, you have to right back to Osborn and Mook (1921).

Which is why I recently decided to put my open-access money where my electronic-only mouth is, and submit the forthcoming Archbishop description to a PLoS journal.  In response to a challenge from Andy Farke, I rather precipitately made a public commitment to do my level best to get that paper submitted this calendar year; and while that may not actually happen, having that goal out there can only help.  Seeing that gorgeous quarry photo of Spinophorosaurus was what tipped me over the edge into wanting to use PLoS.  My plan is to describe the living crap out of that bad boy, photograph every element from every direction and put the whole lot in the paper — make the paper as close as possible as a surrogate for the specimen itself.  Only PLoS (to my knowledge) can do this.

(Of course, once you start wanting to include other kinds of information in your publications — videos, 3d models, etc. — then an electronic-only venue is literally your only option.)

I leave you with two photos of “Cervical P” of the Archbishop; commentary by Matt.  These images are copyright the NHM since it’s their specimen.


Unnamed brachiosaurid NHM R5937, "The Archbishop", Cervical P in right lateral view.


Unnamed brachiosaurid NHM R5937, "The Archbishop", Cervical P in left lateral view.



Back when the Xenoposeidon paper came out, we suggested that Xeno could be the first repesentative of a new sauropod “family”, and then discussed at some length: what is a “family” anyway? Now that the Brachiosaurus paper is out, and I’ve argued that the species “Brachiosaurusbrancai is generically distinct from Brachiosaurus altithorax, it’s time to talk about what a genus is (and so what “generically distinct” means).

In an unnecessarily snarky aside at the end of the last entry, I implied that Randy Irmis would be the one to say that, because my phylogeny recovered “Brachiosaurusbrancai as the sister taxon to Brachiosaurus altithorax, it could and should remain in the genus Brachiosaurus, irrespective of the morphological differences between the genera.  He didn’t quite do that — although Daniel Madzia very nearly did — but Jaime Headden certainly did over on the Dinosaur Mailing List, and even ended up asking: “So my question is this: Why do we need Giraffatitan, and cannot have a Brachiosaurus proteles etc.?”

There are plenty of possible responses to this, but before we plough into that, here is a pretty picture:

Ligament rugosities on the neural spines of Brachiosaurus dorsals

Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107, presacral vertebrae 5-7, neural spines in right posterolateral view

Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107, presacral vertebrae 5-7, neural spines in right posterolateral view

The more retentive among you SV-POW! veterans might remember way back in the very first month of this blog when I showed you what I said were the last four presacral vertebrae of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107.  Actually, I don’t know what I was thinking — they were presacrals 4-7, not 1-4, but that’s not the point.  The point is that Mike From Ottawa (whatever happened to him?) asked about the very rugose anterior surfaces of the neural spines, and I replied:

What the photo doesn’t show (but if you stay tuned long enough you’ll probably see one that does) is that the posterior faces of the neural spines have very similar rugosities. In life, these would have been the anchor points for epaxial muscles and ligaments. In Brachiosaurus altithorax (but not B. brancai) these have a distinctive inverted-triangle shape. In the most posterior pair of B. brancai dorsals, which are co-ossified, the ligament joining their neural spines is itself ossified. Picture to follow some time, I guess :-)

I am finally following up on the first half of that promise: the picture above shows the three most anterior of those same four presacral vertebrae from the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype, but this time in right posterolateral view, so you can see the posterior faces of the neural spines.  And you’ll notice that on the back of each spine, as well as on the front, there’s a large and extremely rough inverted triangle.  I’ve yet to see anything at all like that in any other sauropod — Giraffatitan and the Archbishop included.  Very distinctive.

Right then — back to genera!

Rampant genera on the loose!

Here’s a practical reason to reject the idea that if two taxa are sisters, then they should be regarded as congeneric: Jaime wants to retain the species brancai within Brachiosaurus because it is (in the current analysis) the sister to the type species Brachiosaurus altithorax.  He then wants to put the species proteles into Brachiosaurus because the species we all know as Sauroposeidon proteles is (presumably) the sister to the Brachiosaurusaltithorax-and-brancai clade.  But by induction, if we accept Jaime’s policy, whatever is sister to that clade must also be subsumed into Brachiosaurus, so that we end up losing Titanosauria, Camarasauridae, Diplodocoidea, etc. — Diplodocus carnegii becomes a species of Brachiosaurus.  The good side of this scheme is that eventually, we’ll work our way up to the base of Amniota, at which point I become a member of the species Brachiosaurus sapiens.  That, I could get on board with.  But in other respects, this classification would not be so hot.

I’m assuming that no-one really wants this, and so that advocates of the Sister-Taxa-Are-Congeneric school (hereafter STAC) recognise that you have to draw a line somewhere.  But where?  And how do you choose where?  [Only time will tell whether I just coined an AHATWNUABPANTA.]

How to choose between specific and generic separation

At this point, I am reminded of when I used to be on a mailing list for wannabe writers. Lots of dogma on that list — people saying “don’t overdo adverbs” and “make sure you have enough incidental detail” and so.  People trying to nail down an algorithm for good writing.  But the best advice I saw on that list was from Jane MacDonald: “My personal advice is don’t overdo, or underdo, anything in your writing.  Do it exactly right.”(*)  That’s my attitude to drawing genus boundaries.  It is, frankly, an art; and there are no substitutes for taste, experience, judgement, familiarity with the group in question and all those other touchy-feely qualities that uber-cladists would love to find a way to abolish if they could.  But they can’t.  There is no algorithm for this.  I also think of an observation by computer scientist Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of the C++ programming language: “Design and programming are human activities; forget that and all is lost.”  The same is true of palaeontology.  (And of, well, everything.)

Here’s the thing, folks: a genus, just like any other taxon, is there to be useful.  Its purpose is not to conform to a dogma, but to inform and enlighten.  In the new paper, I wrote that “generic separation is warranted since the two species are more different from each other than, for example, Diplodocus and Barosaurus Marsh, 1890″ (Taylor 2009:798).  I stand by that as a great way to figure out when the morphological differences  between two species merit generic separation: it’s all about conveying degrees of difference.  And, yes, of course I know that the morphological extent of a genus in sauropods is completely different from its extent in, say, botany, where the genus Quercus (oaks) has 700 species or something stupid.  Yes, I fully accept that there is no rigorous and absolute standard by which we can determine The Right Place to drop a genus boundary.  Sure.  But that doesn’t let us out from the responsibility of making the best judgements that we can, based on relevant prior art, recognised conventions, congruence with similar decisions and — there it is again — good taste.

(*) Actually, that is only the second best advice I saw on the wannabe writers’ mailing list.  The best advice of all came second-hand, and was passed on by Greg Gunther: “I was on an [email] list with Tom Clancy once.  Mr. Clancy’s contribution to the list was, ‘Write the damn book’.”  Top advice.

Nomenclatural stability

And so finally I come to Randy’s comment.  In response to his question, I guessed that when I put them all in a matrix together, the Archbishop will form a clade with Brachiosaurus, and Sauroposeidon with Giraffatitan.  Like this: ((Brachiosaurus altithorax, “The Archbishop”), (Giraffatitan brancai, Sauroposeidon proteles)).

,–Brachiosaurus altithorax
/  `–“The Archbishop”
\  ,–Giraffatitan brancai
`–Sauroposeidon proteles

And Randy said:

For the sake of discussion, if the topology is as you say, then I do support the generic separation of altithorax and brancai. Now, of course, as you might surmise, if the two sub-clades are well-supported, I would also advocate putting altithorax and the NHM Tendaguru taxon in the same genus, and brancai and Sauroposeidon in the same genus.

Now I yield to no man in my respect for Randy, whose work exceeds my own humble output by a truly humiliating factor, and who makes it even worse by being such a nice guy.  But I hope he will not take it the wrong way if I say that here, he is talking the purest arsegravy.  Suppose the topology came out the way I guessed, and we adopted his suggested nomenclature.  Then five minutes later Paul Upchurch comes along with a new analysis that finds the Archbishop closer to Giraffatitan after all: and suddenly Brachiosaurus archbishopus becomes Giraffatitan archbishopus.  Five more minutes pass and Jeff Wilson publishes his new phylogeny, in which “Sauroposeidonproteles is sister to Brachiosaurus altithorax, and so what was briefly Giraffatitan proteles becomes Brachiosaurus proteles.  Later that afternoon Jerry Harris shows that Cedarosaurus is more closely related to Brachiosaurus altithorax than the species proteles is: at this point, presumably, either Cedarosaurus gets sunk into Brachiosaurus, as B. weiskopfae, or My Big Fat Brachiosaurus Genus gets smashed up and suddenly, woah, proteles needs its own genus after all and Sauroposeidon is back!

Hands up who wants to deal with tracking all that nomenclatural shifting back and forth?  Hmm, thought not.  Folks, when we name a new species of an existing genus we are betting the nomenclature on the phylogenetic hypothesis.  This is just a dumb thing to do in this day and age — especially if you work on dinosaurs which (A) are big and usually very incomplete and so their positions can’t  be known with certainty; (B) are trendy enough to be subject to a stream of new phylogenetic analyses; and (C) are in a field where pretty much everyone seems to be hot for mandatory monophyly of genera.

So I end with a plea: unless you know for certain that your new taxon is super-closely related to the type species of an existing genus, and unless you are sure that this isn’t going to change with subsequent discoveries, please put your new species in its own monospecific genus.  That way, nomenclature is independent from phylogeny, which is surely how we all want it.  A new monospecific genus is essentially a uninomial that happens to be spelled with a space in the middle.  And uninomials are nice: they rescue us from Linnaeus’s dumb mistake in lumbering nomenclature with binomials.

This has been an Unwelcome Education Product.


Many thanks to Jim Farlow for suggesting the title of this post, which I have cheerfully stolen.  I have no idea whether he agrees with the arguments presented in this article.


For those of you who care about such things, the new issue 66(2) of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature contains two comments on our petition to the ICZN to fix Cetiosaurus oxoniensis as the type species of the historically important genus Cetiosaurus (Upchurch et al. 2009) — both of them supporting the proposal  (Barrett 2009 and Galton 2009).

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis dorsal vertebra in anterior, right lateral and posterior views.  From Upchurch and Martin (2002:fig 5)

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis dorsal vertebra in anterior, right lateral and posterior views. From Upchurch and Martin (2002:fig 5)

Paul Barrett wrote (in part):

Cetiosaurus was the first sauropod dinosaur to be scientifically described (Owen, 1841) and one of the earliest dinosaurs to be recognised: the taxon is clearly of historical importance and stabilising its taxonomy would represent an important contribution to dinosaur studies.
Cetiosaurus is not only a historically important taxon, but also one that has been used to specify other groups within Dinosauria, including Cetiosauridae. In addition, Ornithischia, one of the major dinosaur sub-groups, has been defined as all dinosaurs that are more closely related to Iguanodon than they are to Cetiosaurus (Norman et al., 2004).

(I’d completely missed that use of Cetiosaurus as an external specifier for Ornithischia, which I suppose just goes to show that I should pay more attention to the ornithischian literature.)

Pete Galton wrote (in part):

It should be noted that the “Monograph of the genus Cetiosaurus” by Owen (1875) is based almost entirely on the Bletchington Station material of C. oxoniensis (Owen even used Phillips’ figures!). Also, as noted by Galton & Knoll (2006), the family CETIOSAURIDAE Lydekker, 1888 is based on C. oxoniensis Phillips, 1871 because Lydekker (1888, p. 137) indicated it as being the type species of Cetiosaurus Owen.

More good arguments there for the conservation of prevalent usage by formally recognising C. oxoniensis.

Anyone else who has strong feelings on this subject, either way, should get them in writing to the Executive Secretary, ICZN., c/o Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, U.K. (e-mail: