Taxonomy Fail

Recently came across some ridiculously horrible taxonomy from China (.pdf).  If you scroll down a bit you can see the english translation.  At first glance this looks like a standard taxonomy paper with bare-bones species descriptions.  You might even think to yourself, “huh, wonder why they are describing species from only one specimen”.  Not the end of the world, I’ve even done it myself.  OK, to be fair, I had complete life histories and DNA to support those decisions.  Here – they have neither.  And, once you take a look at the specimen illustrations, something should become shockingly apparent.  What do these specimens have in common (other than the poor image quality)?


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Even if you’re not a lepidopterist, these butterflies look suspicious.  Why?  Because they are aberrations of common species.  15a is even Vanessa cardui – the Painted Lady!  This is beyond a sophomoric mistake, it is simply dishonest.  The authors clearly have either zero knowledge of basic taxonomy of zero interest.  Welcome to a synonymy nightmare – the senior author has a track record of cranking out publications of this magnitude.  Sadly, he does not stand-alone.  Every popular group has their own taxonomy horror stories, but it seems that butterflies often suffer the most at the hands of out-of-control taxonomic terrorists.

One of my favorite stories involved someone who worked on Passalidae beetles (Ted, you’ll probably have to correct this story).  His deep devotion to both god and numerology forced him to name species in couplets of 8.  If he had 5 species he would name an extra 3 just to make an even 8 – acknowledging the fact that they are not yet known to exist.  Sometimes, revisionary taxonomy makes me want to pull out my hair and go swimming in the Pacific.  At least the weather is starting to get nice here.

4 comments to Taxonomy Fail

  • “Taxonomic terrorists” – what a great term!

    Every group with any level of avocational popularity suffers such abuse. The lure of immortality through described species is powerful – even when a tarnished legacy is sure to follow. We have (and have long had) similar characters in coleopterology – no matter how many publication outlets are unavailable to them, they always seem to find some way to get their work (or lack of it) out. But really, I don’t know what’s worse – the prospect of cleaning up messes such as this, or facing groups with literally dozens upon dozens of small, cryptic species that all need description.

    “Two Distatrix escaped during specimen transfer and two died and rotted after eclosion”
    The most forthright justification for a unique holotype that I’ve ever come across :)

  • Vanessa pulchra ….

    Vanessa pulchra Chou, Yuan, Yin, Zhang & Chen,2002 : Entomotaxonomia 24(1) : 54,58,65, figs.15a,15b Holotype ♂(Up & Un). TL. Ganzi, Sichuan.

    it is considered a synonym for Vanessa cardui.

    But I agree, sometimes I do not understand what’s going on inside the heads of such self-appointed scientists.

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