Monday, June 25, 2012

More fictional taxa and the myth of the expert taxonomic database

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but the more I look, the more taxonomic databases seem to be full of garbage. Databases such as the Catalogue of life, which states that it is a "quality-assured checklist" have records that are patently wrong. Here's yet another example.

If you search for the genus Raymondia in the Catalogue of Life you get multiple occurrences of the same species names, e.g.:

Both of these are listed as "provisionally accepted names", supplied by WTaxa: Electronic Catalogue of Weevil names (Curculionoidea). Clearly we can't have two species with the same name, so what's happening?

Firstly, Hustache, A., 1930 is:

Hustache A (1930) Curculionidae Gallo-Rhénans. Annales de la Société entomologique de France 99: 81-272.

On p. 246 Hustache refers to Raymondionymus fossor Aubé, 1864 (see below).

F168 highres

So, Raymondionymus fossor Hustache, A., 1930 is not a new species but simply the citation of a previously published one (it's a chresonym). Hustache cites the author of the name as Aubé, 1864, and you can see the original description by Aubé in BioStor (Description de six espèces nouvelles de Coléoptères d'Europe dont deux appartenant a deux genres nouveaux et aveugles, So, if the taxonomic authority should be Aubé, 1864, what about Raymondionymus fossor Ganglebauer, L., 1906? Again, if we track down the original publication (Revision der Blindrüsslergattungen Alaocyba und Raymondionymus, it's simply Ganglebauer citing (on p. 142) Aubé's paper, not describing a new species.

Note that the nomenclature of this weevil species is further complicated because Aubé originally described the species as Raymondia fossor, but Raymondia was already in use for a fly (see Über eine neue Fliegengattung: Raymondia, aus der Familie der Coriaceen, nebst Beschreibung zweier Arten derselben, To resolve this homonymy Wollaston proposed the name Raymondionymus:

Wollaston, T. V. (1873). XVIII. On the Genera of the Cossonidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 21(4), 427–652. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2311.1873.tb00645.x

So, we have a bit of a mess. Unfortunately this mess percolates up through other databases, for example EOL has three different pages for Raymondionymus fossor.

For me the lesson here is that relying on acquiring data from "trusted" sources, curated by "experts" is simply not a tenable strategy for building lists of taxa. If names are essential bits of biodiversity infrastructure upon which we hang other data, then these lists need to be cleaned, which means exposing them to scrutiny, and providing an easy means for errors to be flagged and corrected. Trust is something that is earned, not asserted, and it's time taxonomic databases stop claiming to be authoritative simply because they rely on expert sources. Expertise is no guarantee that you won't make errors.

For me this is one of the key reasons projects like BHL are so important. As more and more of the original literature becomes available, we lessen our reliance on "expertise". We can start to see for ourselves. In other words, "Nullius in verba" ("take nobody's word for it").