Professional taxonomists often bristle at non-professionals who name new species without going through peer review. But are amateur naturalists really bad for science? Brendan Borrell reports.
The death adders of Australia are not adders at all. Their closest relatives are cobras and coral snakes, but early naturalists were fooled by the snakes' stout body and triangular head. Even today, their taxonomy is a riddle: no one really knows where one species of death adder ends and the next begins.
In the late 1990s, only three species of death adder had been recognized, but herpetologists suspected that there were at least twice as many. Ken Aplin, then a curator at the Western Australian Museum in Perth, had spent years collecting data to back up that hunch. But before his study could be published, Raymond Hoser, a herpetologist not affiliated with an academic institution, described five new species of the snake in a 1998 issue of Monitor, a hobbyist magazine he edited for the Victorian Herpetological Society. Under the taxonomic code of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), Hoser's names — printed and disseminated to society members — take priority over any subsequent descriptions of the species. Aplin had been scooped1.
In the competitive world of taxonomy, countless amateurs have found success by collaborating with academics. Many professionals welcome their contributions; amateur enthusiasts are, in essence, a free workforce at a time when funding for basic taxonomy is waning. But cases such as Hoser's make some scientists wary of such contributions.
Hoser, who runs the snake-removal service Snakebusters in Melbourne, paints the picture as a classic case of academic élitism. “The description of me as an amateur is complete rubbish,” he says. “There's no one in history who has spent so much time dealing with, looking at, catching and breeding death adders as myself.” But his critics say it is not Hoser's credentials that they challenge. “A steady drip of shoddy descriptions” is how Wolfgang Wüster, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wales in Bangor, describes Hoser's work. In a published critique, he and other leading herpetologists argue that Hoser “almost invariably fails to provide adequate information on his species, on their types, or on the material he has examined”, making it difficult to repeat and test the observations2. Hoser, for his part, says that his descriptions contain more than adequate information.
Seek, locate, describe
But the ICZN, the group in charge of setting the ground rules for taxonomy, says it cannot police the quality of every published description. “It's a very tricky area to work in,” says Andrew Polaszek, executive secretary for the organization. The commission, he says, will arbitrate only on pure nomenclature issues. In such a dispute, it will assess whether a Latin name put forward for a new species is valid under the taxonomic code. The code states that authors need to print the description of their species on paper, designate a type specimen, and list features that distinguish it from others. So just because a description is valid doesn't mean it is good. “The commission does not like to get involved in subjective taxonomy,” Polaszek says.
Some taxonomists have proposed that the ICZN change its rules so that new species can be described only in peer-reviewed journals or through some other formal accreditation process. But others think that might impose too much of a burden on small society journals where many good descriptions are published without peer review. In short, no clear solution is forthcoming.
Centuries ago, amateur was the only way to be a naturalist. The linnaean nomenclature system arrived in England in 1760 and soon became “a parlour game for the leisure class”, says retired historian David Allen in Winchester, UK. “People armed with guides to the flora took them out on their fashionable wanderings around the countryside.” The surge in popular interest fuelled a rash of publications in club newsletters and self-financed monographs describing species and rearranging classifications. The backlash began almost immediately; even Charles Darwin criticized the vain “species-mongers” who perpetuate a “vast amount of bad work”3. He thought the problem stemmed from this notion of priority, which he called “the greatest curse to natural history”.
As a case in point, consider orchids. Two specialists recently published a plea against what they call “taxonomic exaggeration”4. As European botanists continue to subdivide orchid species that are not genetically distinct, they artificially inflate both the diversity and rarity of local flora, which may shift conservation priorities away from remote areas with fewer described species.
A question of honour
Orchids have long attracted a plethora of amateurs. In 2002, for instance, Michael Kovach smuggled a ladyslipper orchid from Peru and asked that a taxonomist at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, name it after him. Selby's experts reportedly knew that Eric Christenson, an unaffiliated taxonomist also in Florida, had his own description of the species scheduled for a forthcoming issue of Orchids. Selby rushed a two-page description of Phragmipedium kovachii to print as a supplement to its house journal. Kovach eventually pleaded guilty to illegal possession and trade of an endangered species; Selby was fined for its role in the scandal. None of this matters in the eyes of the taxonomic code, which will honour Kovach for ever.
Such 'orchid fever' has coloured the work of more than a few budding taxonomists. “There are lots of orchid amateurs who do not have a taxonomic background and who once in a while feel like they can make taxonomic changes,” says Calaway Dodson, emeritus curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “Generally, it's a disaster.” But some amateurs, he says, do excellent work. In Florida in the 1960s, a retired surgeon called Carlyle Leur began photographing the orchids of the state, and went on to document the entire country. Leur has since published more than 30 painstakingly illustrated monographs on the Pleurothallidinae, a daunting subfamily of orchids that contains more than 3,500 species.
Perhaps, then, the energy of amateurs can best be harnessed to fill the gaps in areas where few professionals work. The number of both professional and amateur taxonomists has been declining in Britain since the 1950s, according to a survey done in 2002 (ref. 5). But because they are distributed so widely, amateurs can generate better geographical coverage of flora and fauna, and focus on more descriptive taxonomy, leaving professionals free for molecular systematic studies.
One successful venture, launched in 2002, is a partnership between government agency Natural England and the Natural History Museum in London, to encourage amateurs to contribute their data to local recorders. Museum experts have trained fly-fishermen to identify river flies and have enlisted members of the Ramblers' Association to monitor mature elm trees during their walks. The project met resistance from both sides at first, says sociologist Claire Waterton of Lancaster University. Some amateurs were reluctant to submit their data because they didn't understand how the work would be used, whereas others were worried that they would be judged unfavourably by professionals if they made mistakes. In turn, many professionals expressed concern about the quality of the data they might get. But in February, the British Mycological Society uploaded a database of fungal records to the National Biodiversity Network. Compiled by local groups in Britain and Ireland, the database contains 140,000 recorded samples dating back to the eighteenth century.
Technology is also an important way to harness amateurs' contributions. Charles Godfray, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, UK, has worked to set up a peer-reviewed, single repository for all taxonomic information online — a sort of wiki-taxonomy6. That, he says, could help amateurs check the taxonomic designations of species that have been described. “The single thing that stops amateurs from being better involved in the process of taxonomy is getting at the literature,” says Godfray. He is beginning to see his dream realized with a test website called CATE, for 'creating a taxonomic e-science', which he hopes will hold the taxonomy for aroids (popular house plants) and hawkmoths.
Polaszek notes that there is plenty of work for both amateurs and professionals. “We've got tens of millions of species to be described, and the easier this is, the better it is for everybody,” he says. The ICZN is setting up a new system, called ZooBank, that requires species descriptions to be registered online. Within a year, he says, ZooBank could even be modified to include purely web publications such as CATE.
But could such changes sort out the mess over Australian reptiles? Perhaps not. In the 1980s, two amateur herpetologists called Richard Wells and Ross Wellington published more than 550 species descriptions that have since been changed7. An attempt to annul the work of the pair was rebuffed by the ICZN and taxonomists still have to sort through this work to determine whether the names chosen by Wells and Wellington have priority over other publications.
Hoser, for his part, found inspiration in their example and christened one death adder Acanthophis wellsei. It may have been a fitting tribute, as the name itself was improperly constructed. In a redescription of the species, Aplin amended the name to Acanthophis wellsi.
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Borrell, B. The big name hunters. Nature 446, 253–255 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/446253a