Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's In A Name? Part Deux

The pursuit begun so innocently in the previous post continues here. (If you've just stumbled onto this blog, I'd recommend reading the previous post to this one to help set the stage.)

What about those damned parentheses around Agassiz’s name in Carcharhinus egertoni (Agassiz 1843)? They tell me that Agassiz’s original name for this shark was changed by subsequent paleontologists.

A painfully inefficient exploration of the online versions of the Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles, Agassiz’s multiple-volume treatise on fossil fishes (published from 1833 to 1843), turned up a single candidate for what he might have actually named this shark – Corax egertoni.

Could I trace this C. egertoni to my Carcharhinus egertoni? With some additional anguish and pawing through my library and the morass that is the web, I did. Way stations in the naming process included Galeocerdo egertoni, Prionodon egertoni, and Carcharhinus (Prionodon) egertoni.

Of course, after this whole process, I am in full agreement with the opening quotation in the latest International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (released by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the high court of taxonomic naming protocol and opinion -- link here). It quotes the preface to its first published code in 1961:

"Like all language, zoological nomenclature reflects the history of those who have produced it, and is the result of varying and conflicting practices. Some of our nomenclatural usage has been the result of ignorance, of vanity, obstinate insistence on following individual predilections, much, like that of language in general, of national customs, prides, and prejudices."

It’s an encouraging start, I think (listen to the sarcasm in my voice). Of course, the quotation continues in a vein much more likely to assuage scientific minds:

"Ordinary languages grow spontaneously in innumerable directions; but biological nomenclature has to be an exact tool that will convey a precise meaning for persons in all generations."

Now, we can only hope about the exactness. Frankly, what I wrestle with is not the exactness of the naming protocols, but rather the fluidity of the basic identification of specimens and ease with which long established names are conflated with others, substituted for others, or dropped in favor of those others. I am too new at this to know whether the experience of poor Carcharhinus egertoni is still the rule or the exception.

But, it only gets worse. I came upon a piece written in 2001 by Robert Purdy and others in volume III of the series published by the Smithsonian on the fossils of Lee Creek Mine (North Carolina) (link here). They describe the sharks, rays, and bony fishes found at Lee Creek. Their entries for Carcharhinus brachyurus and C. leucas brought me close to tears (okay, deep sighs may be more like it).

Though they could not inspect the actual “syntypes” of Corax egertoni (that is, the two individual specimens that Agassiz used to describe and name C. egertoni – possibly from Sir Philip Egerton himself), Purdy et al. felt able to reach conclusions about those type specimens from inspecting published plates of the teeth. One of the two type specimens, they concluded, is identical to teeth from another fossil shark, Carcharhinus brachyurus, and the other “compares favorably with a lateral tooth of Carcharhinus leucas.”

So, in just a few words, they eliminated C. egertoni as a distinct species and deprived Sir Philip Egerton of a bit of his immortality.

Though, I shouldn’t be too hasty. First, C. egertoni is still used by many and, without a doubt, if we wait long enough, someone else will rename this shark. And, if I were fully masochistic, I might take a new path in this hunt, perhaps up a mountain road in the Himalayas where I could see the Rusty-fronted Barwing, whose scientific name is Actinodura egertoni, one of a few extinct and extant animals with the egertoni species label. Hmmm . . . Sir Philip, are you there?

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