Category Archive 'Raymond Hoser'

09 Sep 2017

Taxonomic Vandalism

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Presumably Naja nigricincta, the Western barred spitting cobra.

Smithsonian reports that there is a problem these days with taxonomic vandalism.

Imagine, if you will, getting bit by an African spitting cobra. These reptiles are bad news for several reasons: First, they spit, shooting a potent cocktail of nerve toxins directly into their victims’ eyes. But they also chomp down, using their fangs to deliver a nasty bite that can lead to respiratory failure, paralysis, and occasionally even death.

Before you go rushing to the hospital in search of antivenin, you’re going to want to look up exactly what kind of snake you’re dealing with. But the results are confusing. According to the official record of species names, governed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the snake belongs to the genus Spracklandus. What you don’t know is that almost no taxonomists use that name. Instead, most researchers use the unofficial name that pops up in Wikipedia and most scientific journal articles: Afronaja.

This might sound like semantics. But for you, it could mean the difference between life and death. “If you walk in [to the hospital] and say the snake that bit you is called Spracklandus, you might not get the right antivenin,” says Scott Thomson, a herpetologist and taxonomist at Brazil’s Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo. After all, “the doctor is not a herpetologist … he’s a medical person trying to save your life.”

In fact, Spracklandus is the center of a heated debate within the world of taxonomy—one that could help determine the future of an entire scientific field. And Raymond Hoser, the Australian researcher who gave Spracklandus its official name, is one of the forefront figures in that debate.

By the numbers, Hoser is a taxonomy maven. Between 2000 and 2012 alone, Hoser named three-quarters of all new genera and subgenera of snakes; overall, he’s named over 800 taxa, including dozens of snakes and lizards. But prominent taxonomists and other herpetologists—including several interviewed for this piece—say that those numbers are misleading.

According to them, Hoser isn’t a prolific scientist at all. What he’s really mastered is a very specific kind of scientific “crime”: taxonomic vandalism.

RTWT


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