Printer Friendly

A giant tortoise by any other name: lengthy battle ends with moniker for Indian Ocean reptile.

One of taxonomy's most passionately disputed arguments over a scientific name has finally come to an end. After nearly two centuries of ambiguity, years of fierce debate and a record number of formal comments on the proposed name, a commission has declared gigantea the one true species term for the Aldabra giant tortoises.

That species descriptor will be used as part of a two word Latin name that puts the species into a genus with its near relatives. Meet Aldabrachelys gigantea.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature oversees standards in the naming of animals. Naming debates can get "fractious" says executive secretary Ellinor Michel.

Confusion about the name built over centuries. Biologists have used 49 different Latin names for the giants of the Aldabra Moll in the western Indian Ocean. The tortoises can weigh several hundred pounds and live for more than a century. Taxonomic rules call for rigorously determining the earliest valid name and designating a single specimen as a benchmark "type." The naming code also calls for stability.

The issue came to a head in 2008, when Ecuador-based zoologist Jack Frazier, with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, asked the commission to recognize gigantea as the valid species descriptor for the tortoise and to use a specimen he described in 2006 as the benchmark.

Frazier argued that gigantea is now the most commonly used Latin term for the species. At Frazier's urging, conservationists and other nontaxonomists who use the species name chimed in.

Normally each of the 40 or so naming disputes the commission considers in a year draws a couple of commentaries in response, Michel says. The tortoise dispute inspired more than 80 responses.

But Frazier's call for nonspecialist opinions wasn't appropriate, protested taxonomist Roger Bour of the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris. "Should zoological nomenclature be regulated by a set of rules or by 'polls' open to anyone?" he asked in a commentary he sent to the commission. The tortoise case "was initiated by non-taxonomists apparently unschooled in the rules of zoological nomenclature and unwilling to abandon a name that they have become used to."

The argument against gigantea is long and intricate. Just one of the problems: The earliest candidate for a type specimen was either lost or mislabeled for at least 90 years. The preserved animal was moved in 1808 along with other natural history specimens from the royal collection in Lisbon to Paris after Napoleon invaded Portugal. In Paris, a young physician studying natural history dubbed the recently arrived prize a new species, Testudo gigantea.

But his account notes that the specimen had been collected in Brazil. If that origin was correct, the physician had named a South American tortoise gigantea, not the one from Aldabra. And what happened to the specimen next is contentious.

By 1915, searches of the Paris museum collection failed to turn up the original specimen, and without access to it scientists couldn't check its characteristics or origin. And starting in 1835, some taxonomists had used the Latin name gigantea for tortoises from Aldabra, not Brazil.

The specimen was actually in Paris all along but labeled under a different name, Bour announced in 2006. He identified the specimen as the one that came from Lisbon based on such clues as its measurements and the kind of fiber stuffing and painted wooden eyes the specimen sported. And it's now clear that it's not an Aldabra tortoise but a South American species that has its own Latin name. In the end, Bour concluded that applying the rules of the code would not call for naming the Aldabra tortoise gigantea.

One of the ICZN commissioners, Philippe Bouchet, also of Paris' National Museum of Natural History, says he told Bour, "You are technically right, but you are socially wrong." Sometimes what best serves society is ratifying a widely used name for an iconic animal.

After allowing several years instead of the more usual one for debate, the ICZN announced March 31 that commissioners favored Frazier's proposal for gigantea and the Smithsonian type specimen.

The debate has greater implications than the name of one tortoise, says ICZN Commissioner Richard L. Pyle of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Keeping clear names for species, he says, is "as fundamental to information about biodiversity as IP addresses are to the Internet."

As someone who works with the tortoises in their native land, Nancy Bunbury of the Seychelles Islands Foundation says she's "relieved and delighted." At last the tortoises have a name.

Caption: Officials have voted to use gigantea as part of the species name describing the iconic giant tortoises of the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean.


Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Society for Science and the Public
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Life; Aldabrachelys gigantea
Author:Milius, Susan
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:0INDI
Date:May 18, 2013
Previous Article:Promise in treating ovarian cancer: experimental medicine uses seek-and-destroy technique.
Next Article:Bats make mental maps on the fly.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |