Has the name Darwinius masillae been published? And if so, by who?

May 20, 2009 • 1:27 pm

by Greg Mayer

In a previous post on the hype surrounding the online posting of a paper on ‘Ida’, the Eocene primate from the Messel Lagerstatte, I noted that the

from Hurun et al. 2009. Plosone. www.plosone.org
from Franzen et al. 2009. Plosone. http://www.plosone.org

authors had made a nomenclatural faux pas in allowing the name and a description to be published before their paper appeared, thus making the authorship and date of publication of the name murky. At Laelaps, cromercrox (comment 35 here and comment 16 here), and at the Loom, Martin Brazeau and Larry Witmer (comments 27 & 29) have also noted nomenclatural problems, since online posting does not constitute publication under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, unless copies “have been deposited in 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself”, (ICZN 8.6), which didn’t happen. As posted by Plosone, the paper is not published for nomenclatural purposes.

My concern was not that the name was unpublished, but that it had already been published, in one or more of the newspapers or perhaps even magazines that covered the pre-press conference hoopla. In the Code, Article 8 defines publication, Articles 10 and 11 cover general conditions of availability of a name, and Article 13 gives the particulars for names published after 1930 (the rules are stricter after 1930). The requirements may be summarized by saying that a proper new name must be published (sensu Article 8), and must “be accompanied by a description or definition that states in words characters that are purported to differentiate the taxon” (ICZN 13.1.1). I fear these requirements have been met by some of the pre-press conference articles.

The earliest one I have found is the one in the Daily Mail from May 10 (there may be earlier ones– I haven’t looked very hard). (I also don’t have a paper copy, and am assuming the web article appeared in the paper.  If it didn’t, I could illustrate the exact same points for the New York Times, for which I do have paper copies.) In the article, by Sharon Churcher, the name appears:

Christened Darwinius masillae, it belonged to an extinct group of primates which lived in rainforests.

It also includes characters that are purported to differentiate the taxon:

The study’s authors insist that the fossil can’t be a lemur because it lacks two features: the ‘toothcomb’, a set of lower front teeth used to groom fur; and ‘toilet claws’, toes on the hind feet used for scratching.

The Mail is also mass produced in identical copies obtainable for free or by purchase, publicly available, and permanently archived in many libraries. So it looks like the name has been published.  The one possible out is that you could argue that the Mail isn’t issued for the purpose of providing a scientific record, but purposes are slippery things. Does a newspaper with a science section (which is of course quite purposeful) meet the requirement, but perhaps one without doesn’t? I don’t know. That’s why it’s murky. It is to avoid murkiness that the Code makes Recommendation 8B:

Authors and publishers are strongly urged to ensure that a new scientific name or nomenclatural act is first published in a work printed on paper.

also Recommendation 8D:

Authors, editors and publishers have a responsibility to ensure that works containing new names, nomenclatural acts, or information likely to affect nomenclature are self-evidently published within the meaning of the Code. Editors and publishers should ensure that works contain the date of publication, and information about where they may be obtained. (emphasis added)

and Recommendation 8E:

Editors and publishers should avoid including new names and the information that might appear to make the names available, or new nomenclatural acts, in works that are not issued for public and permanent scientific record (such as pre-symposium abstracts, or notices of papers to be delivered at a meeting). They should ensure that such documents contain a disclaimer (see Article 8.2), so that new names published for the first time therein do not enter zoological nomenclature unintentionally and pre-empt intended publication in another work. (emphasis added)

But it looks to me like the Mail (or the Times, or whoever published it first) is the first valid publication of the name. The Code provides that the author of a name need not be the author of the work:

However, if it is clear from the contents that some person other than an author of the work is alone responsible both for the name or act and for satisfying the criteria of availability other than actual publication, then that other person is the author of the name or act. If the identity of that other person is not explicit in the work itself, then the author is deemed to be the person who publishes the work. (ICZN 50.1.1; emphasis added)

Jorn Hurum and Phil Gingerich are mentioned in the article as people who did the work, with Hurum given precedence.  So what’s the proper citation of this new taxon? It’s

Darwinius masillae Hurum and Gingerich in Churcher 2009.

9 thoughts on “Has the name Darwinius masillae been published? And if so, by who?

  1. Actually this was true before the 1999 code. With this code, the names are only available when there is intention of publishing them. This condition is not met by any newspaper author. See the transcript of the ICZN article below:

    “Article 16. Names published after 1999.

    16.1. All names: intention of authors to establish new nominal taxa to be explicit. Every new name published after 1999, including new replacement names (nomina nova), must be explicitly indicated as intentionally new.

    Recommendation 16A. Means of explicitly indicating names as intentionally new. To avoid uncertainty about their intentions, authors proposing new names (nomina nova), including new replacement names, are advised to make their intentions explicit by using in headings, or at first use of new names in proposals, appropriate abbreviations of Latin terms such as “fam. nov.”, “g. nov.”, “sp. nov.”, “ssp. nov.”, or some strictly equivalent expression such as “new family”, “new genus”, “new species”, “new subspecies”, “n. fam.”, “n. g.”, “n. sp.”, “n. ssp.”, “nomen novum”. The abbreviation “nom. nov.” should only be used to indicate a new replacement name.

    The term “stat. nov.” should not be used. But when it has been used to indicate that the former name of an infrasubspecific entity is being applied to a species or subspecies an author should accept that this explicitly indicated its user’s intention to establish the former name of the infrasubspecific entity as a new name (see Article 45.5.1).”

    1. Unfortunately, “christened” is a pretty explicit indication that the author considers the name to be new; the sp. and gen. nov. designations are only recommendations. I agree that it’s not a good idea to have newspaper names stand, but the Code has always walked a fine line between being strongly prescriptive, and allowing for the many variations in how papers are published. That’s why the Code exhorts authors and editors to act clearly and responsibly, and why it’s a pity confusion has arisen in this case. There’s a lot of good additional discussion of all these issues over at the Loom: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2009/05/20/does-darwinius-exist/


      1. Shouldn’t the authorship should be cited as “Hurum and Gingerich ex Churcher 2009”? (or just “Churcher 2009”)? Hurum and Gingerich didn’t write the words in the Mail article, but Churcher does give them credit.

        This is certainly an ongoing problem; in most cases where a newly described species is interesting enough to receive mass media coverage, I would guess the mass media article precedes the scientific article.

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