Bird names

K.J.Caley Kevin.Caley at
Wed Jun 9 16:16:46 EDT 1999

Michael Gochfeld wrote:

> I'll respectfully disagree with Doug.  I having struggled with the
> generic concept longer ago than I care to remember, I think that
> defining generic relationships is part art, part illusion and part
> science---and how much of each varies with the particular taxon.

However, with the advent of good cladistical techniques, surely this problem
of 'the art' is going to be much reduced?  Also, in the past didn't it also
vary with who was doing the naming?

> Moreover, the strict cladists arguing for dichotomous branching at every
> level, would leave us with numerous levels of branching such that the
> similarity between two "species" within Genus A may be much greater than
> that between two "species" in genus B.

Point taken, but leads to the problem of  'where DO we draw the line' (e.g.
Pongo and Homo is closer than many intrageneric species, but we still insist
on keeping the two separate, possibly because of our own egocentric
discomfort at the merging of these two).  Science is, after all, (or should
be) about being objective with one's observations, so it does sound like a
fault of the researchers, but I suppose that it is one that we have to live
with until we have a better understanding on how evolution works, if we ever
get there......

> Moreover, the people who have to
> remember the names are not necessarily those who have to know or care
> about the relationships.  It is indeed nice to know the relationships
> and often they have some importance outside of the strict discipline of
> systematics----for example, it's nice to know which primates are more
> closely related to humans if you want to study them as models for
> humans.

However, this ignores the fact the organisms were originally named by
scientists in a large majority of cases - without these names, we would have
had nothing to go on at all.  Vernaculars are often added afterwards these
days, not before (the dragonflies being a prime example of this).

> For the most part, however, we have been talking about communicating
> among people with like interests----which are outside of strict
> systematics.

Possibly, but think where the interests originally stem from.  Also one name
has to be used for at least two functions and two sets of audiences, but
both need to be able to know what the other is talking about without
uneccessary overcomplications (taxonomic changes do NOT come into this
category, as they are often necessary from the scientific point of view).

> I don't personally like the numbers, but I certainly don't expect to
> keep on top of the name changes----many of which swing back
> inexorably---to a prior name.  Yet journal editors have policies
> regarding nomenclature to which authors are expected to adhere,
> uncritically.

This is very unfortunate, and is a fault that lies at the feet of the
editors, not because of any objective scientific reasoning.  They need to be
better informed, I would think.

> So, I suppose if we really knew once and for all which two species of
> anything were most closely related, then I wouldn't mind reflecting that
> in the generic name.

What would you suggest as an alternative which both parties could use
without the loss of information? Family and species epithet with a cladogram
included where relevant (which would rapidly become very tedious)?

> Having been involved in a split at the family level (birds), I can only
> say that whatever problems exist at the generic level may be worse when
> it comes to deciding whether a group is a subfamily or a family.

I would have thought it would be the other way round, as there are far more
in the way of minor characteristics that need to be considered, someething
that increases as you go through species and then race; e.g. is it really
sufficient for something that is flightless to be seaparated from something
that is not at the generic level, and if it is, then how come there are
certain species of duck that possess both  flightless and flighted (even if
weakly so) forms while among cormorants the creature is left out on a limb,
as it were - cladistically, the latter would be included, not excluded
because of its origins from within an extant genus.


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