[Syrphidae] FW: Interesting question

Francis Gilbert Francis.Gilbert at nottingham.ac.uk
Tue Feb 1 20:02:04 GMT 2022


From: Douglas Yanega <dyanega at gmail.com>
Sent: 01 February 2022 19:28
To: syrphidae at lists.nottingham.ac.uk
Subject: Re: [Syrphidae] Interesting question

On 2/1/22 3:35 AM, Tamara Tóth wrote:
Dear All,

Very interesting question:
Can a new species be described without knowing any data about the specimen?

In the most limited sense of interpreting your question, I can say this much, as I am an ICZN Commissioner:

The two most crucial Articles in the Code are Articles 13 and 16, in particular the following two bits:


13.1. Requirements

To be available, every new name published after 1930 must satisfy the provisions of Article 11 and must

13.1.1. be accompanied by a description or definition that states in words characters that are purported to differentiate the taxon, or

13.1.2. be accompanied by a bibliographic reference to such a published statement, even if the statement is contained in a work published before 1758, or in one that is not consistently binominal, or in one that has been suppressed by the Commission (unless the Commission has ruled that the work is to be treated as not having been published [Art. 8.7]), or

13.1.3. be proposed expressly as a new replacement name (nomen novum) for an available name, whether required by any provision of the Code or not.16.4. Species-group names: fixation of name-bearing types to be explicit

16.4. Species-group names: fixation of name-bearing types to be explicit

Every new specific and subspecific name published after 1999, except a new replacement name (a nomen novum), for which the name-bearing type of the nominal taxon it denotes is fixed automatically [Art. 72.7], must be accompanied in the original publication

16.4.1. by the explicit fixation of a holotype, or syntypes, for the nominal taxon [Arts. 72.2, 72.3, 73.1.1, 73.2 and Recs. 73A and 73C], and,

16.4.2. where the holotype or syntypes are extant specimens, by a statement of intent that they will be (or are) deposited in a collection and a statement indicating the name and location of that collection (see Recommendation 16C).

In a strictly literal sense, then, you cannot comply with these Code provisions if you literally cannot provide any data about the specimen. It's hard to imagine how you can designate an individual specimen as a holotype (as Art. 16 requires) without being able to at least describe what it looks like, and compare it to other taxa (as Art. 13 requires).

Note that you can comply with these articles using things like compression fossils (which are not actual specimens of organisms; they're mineralized deposits occupying the space where a specimen of an organism used to be) or photographs (note the clause in 16.4.2 about "where the holotype or syntypes are extant specimens" - it is possible for a holotype to NOT be an extant specimen).

People gripe, but it's simple enough: consider if a photograph of a holotype is taken, and immediately after the paper is published, the type is lost/destroyed - such a name is still available. That is functionally no different from when a photograph of a holotype is taken and the specimen is lost/destroyed BEFORE the paper is published. This can also apply to specimens designated as a type but destroyed in the process of DNA sequencing. The sequencing can occur before the paper is published, but it doesn't affect availability.

The Code allows a name to be available when the designated type is no longer extant, and does not discriminate between whether the type was lost before or after the paper designating it was published. But note that the paper must still designate a specimen, and include some sort of description+diagnosis.

That being said, you can't designate a DNA sequence AS a type (you have to designate the specimen from which the DNA was taken), nor can you designate a photograph AS a type (you have to designate the specimen whose photo was taken).

One would hope that any sensible peer review process would preclude someone attempting to describe a new taxon represented by nothing but a DNA sequence (e.g., a sequence that appears in some metabarcoded soil sample), but even if someone managed to get such a name past peer review, and even if they gave a convincing argument that their description was Code-compliant, consider the parallel to an 18th-century nomen dubium with no known specimens. The possibility exists, at least, that some day someone will find an actual specimen whose DNA sequence definitively matches, and can therefore be used as a neotype. That's actually MORE LIKELY to happen than to find specimens definitively attributable to old nomina dubia, so allowing nomina dubia to be available and not allowing DNA-based names would be a bit of a double standard.

I will also note that I've heard people propose that the Code, in the future, should require a DNA sequence for a name to be available, but that rather blithely overlooks that you can't get DNA sequences from  fossils. I rather suspect the paleontological community would have some complaints about any such requirement.



Doug Yanega      Dept. of Entomology       Entomology Research Museum

Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314     skype: dyanega

phone: (951) 827-4315 (disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)


  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness

        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82
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