Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Gigantea vs. Elephantina Isn't a Monster Movie—It's a Slow-Moving War of Words-A 200-Year-Old Spat Over Tortoise Name Has a Winner - via Herp Digest

By  Gautum Naik, Wall Street Journal 4/1/2001
In 1812, the giant tortoise of the Indian Ocean atoll of Aldabra was given a scientific Latin name: Testudo gigantea.

Then, for more than two centuries, researchers sparred over what to call the 600-pound creature.

In recent months, the slow-moving debate quickened. Rival biologists published more than 100 pages of lengthy, academic arguments for why the animal should retain the gigantea name or take on another scientific moniker. Elephantina was held out as one possibility; dussumieri another.

The scientists extended the name-calling to each other as well, with some tartly dismissing others as "unschooled." The Seychelles government, which claims the tortoise as a native, also weighed in on the matter.

It has been "a very charged issue," says Ellinor Michel, executive secretary of the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, or ICZN. "Scientists are pretty good at saying that the other person is an idiot."

The tortoise spat is one of about 60 cases presented each year to the ICZN, a little-known group that functions as the world's arbiter for animals' scientific names. Acrimonious battles have raged for years over the correct monikers for certain shrimp, snails, fruit flies, butterflies and dinosaurs.

It is a big job: every year, researchers identify about 20,000 new animal species. Each must be given a scientifically valid name, usually in Latin or in Greek, that will endure. Otherwise, the animal kingdom might fall into chaos. The task is likely to become even tougher: due to drastic budget cuts, the ICZN's own future existence is now severely threatened.
When enacting laws for species conservation, for example, "you have to know what animal you're talking about or you're going to be in trouble," says David Attenborough, the British naturalist. He once spent several days among the Aldabra tortoises. "There are a great number of these extraordinary creatures lumbering around the place," he recalls, adding that one of them stole his shoes from outside the tent.

The world's roughly 1.4 million known animal species typically go by two or more names in scientific literature—a source of confusion to many. Several have 20 names. One species of honey bee has 70. Some critters are described by two or three different names in the same research paper.

The clash over the Aldabra tortoise ranks as one of the most murky and bitter in the ICZN's 118-year history.

In the late 1800s, Charles Darwin argued for the protection of the tortoise, which can grow three feet high and live for two centuries. But the animal has been given up to 40 names. The recent fight has been principally about two of them.

In 1812, a German botanist named August Friedrich Schweigger studied tortoise specimens at the natural history museum in Paris. One, a giant, he named Testudo gigantea. That stuffed specimen later was misplaced for 200 years.

About two decades later, two French biologists described two species of giant tortoises. One they called T. elephantina. They other they referred to as gigantea.

A scientist at London's Natural History Museum concluded that gigantea and elephantina were the same creature. For the next century or so, the Aldabra tortoise was routinely described as gigantea.

In 1982, a French scientist named Roger Bour of the Paris Natural History Museum concluded that the Schweigger specimen didn't originate from Aldabra, after all. He argued that gigantea should be renamed elephantina, the name chosen by his French compatriots in the 1800s.

That proposal muddied the waters. Scientists began to refer to the same tortoise using different names.
An American biologist, Jack Frazier, wanted to eliminate the confusion. In 2006, he designated a tortoise specimen at the Smithsonian museum as the new type specimen for the Aldabra tortoise, which he continued to call gigantea.

That same year, Dr. Bour was rooting around the Paris museum specimens and came across a two-foot-long specimen smelling faintly of the varnish that once had been used to polish it for display. It was Schweigger's gigantea, missing for two centuries.

Dr. Bour quickly concluded that the specimen came from Brazil, not Aldabra, and that gigantea was therefore no longer a valid name. He proposed yet another moniker—dussumieri—named after another Frenchman and referring to a tortoise specimen stored in a Dutch museum, which had been obtained from Aldabra in the late 1800s.

Meanwhile, Dr. Frazier kept lobbying for gigantea, which has wide usage. In 2009, he filed a petition to the ICZN to set the record straight. He also asked colleagues to send written comments in support of the cause.

The quarrel over the Aldabra tortoise, known as case 3463, landed on the desk of Svetlana Nikolaeva, an ICZN zoologist. She and her colleagues work out of a single room at the London natural history museum. Nearby, locked cabinets hold thousands of specimens, from insects and birds to dinosaurs.

ICZN trolls through decades of research to assess the validity of competing names, while fielding calls, letters and emails from rival scientists who passionately argue for one name or another.

"We are pedantry central and we relish that," says Dr. Michel. "But sometimes I'd rather be in a lake scuba-diving."

In any naming issue, ICZN publishes petitions in a research journal it runs, the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. Responses are published, too. ICZN's 26 commissioners then vote on a name for posterity.

Over four years, the bulletin has published more than 80 comments on the Aldabra tortoise. "Usually we publish two or three," says Dr. Nikolaeva.

In September 2009, a published comment from the Seychelles minister of environment pointed out that gigantea "is the name that appears in our legislation, in the legislation of other countries, in international treaties and a host of other official documents." Gigantea should be kept, he said.

One comment, which appeared in June 2009, was from Dr. Bour and a colleague. "In this case the issue was initiated by non-taxonomists apparently unschooled in the rules of zoological nomenclature," the pair wrote. They added that the Aldabra case was a minefield "complete with brave soldiers and cowardly ones."

To call fellow-scientists "unschooled is the height of arrogance," says Dr. Frazier.

For his part, Dr. Bour says that Dr. Frazier cheapened a serious academic debate by lobbying for supportive comments for the name gigantea, many of which got published. "It's not fair play," says Dr. Bour.

On Sunday, ICZN's expert panel published the results of a vote in its bulletin: The slow-moving tortoise need not budge on its name: Gigantea it will be.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You only need to enter your comment once! Comments will appear once they have been moderated. This is so as to stop the would-be comedian who has been spamming the comments here with inane and often offensive remarks. You know who you are!

Related Posts with Thumbnails