Nomenclatorial forensics and Byzantinism in taxonomy

Harry Lee has just released two contributions on the excellent website of Bill Frank and himself (www.jaxshells.org) about the correct attribution of taxonomic names. What seems like a dispute about futilities is actually a good piece of detective work.

It all started in July 2010 in the Dominican Republic, Barahona Prov., Virgen de San Rafael area, where Alan Gettleman collected a Chondropomium and a Plagioptycha species. Harry identified these species as C. nobile and P. strumosa. However, he took the effort to carefully read the original description and discovered that it wasn’t as simply as thought on first sight.

Screen_shot_2010-10-31_at_09

 Photo: Harry Lee

The story on C. nobile can be found here (www.jaxshells.org/10088.htm). It involved quite some bibliographic researching and interpretation of the ICZN rules to reach the correct taxonomic name.

0screen_shot_2010-10-31_at_09

 Photo: Harry Lee

The authorship of Plagioptycha strumosa also involved forensic bibliographic research and can be found here www.jaxshells.org/0050a.htm. Harry’s assumption may be right that Reeve heard the reading of Pfeiffer’s paper at the meeting of the Zoological Society in London. However, I doubt he was able to immediately catch a vivid image of the shell in his mind by hearing its description being read. I have found, during my recent visit to the NHM collection, multiple instances where material described by Pfeiffer was returned to London accompanied by his handwritten taxon labels and later also used by Reeve. At the same time I have found material that was described by Reeve or Sowerby and that also bears labels in Pfeiffer’s handwriting. 

Although we cannot reconstruct the past as accurately as we would like, it may be a safe bet that during the 19th century there was more contact between malacologists than sometimes assumed, including swaps of material. Would there really have been that much byzantine machinations that we could say: “This clearly explains why Reeve was beaten senseless shortly after exiting a pub in the winter of 1855…..” (Kurt Auffenbach, in litt.)?

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