Comments on the proposed conservation of usage of Testudo gigantea Schweigger, 1812 (currently Geochelone (Aldabrachelys) gigantea; Reptilia, Testudines) (Case 3463) 2

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2011
Authors:Smeenk, C
Journal:Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature
Start Page:297
Date Published:12/2011
Type of Article:Comment
Full Text

The locality of the lectotype of Testudo dussumieri Gray, 1831

The latest comment by Frazier & Matyot (BZN 68: 140–143), in reaction to the preceding one by Hoogmoed (BZN 68: 72–77), cannot go unanswered. The main point, time and again raised by Frazier & Matyot, is that the locality Aldabra is unreliable and is actually likely to be Mahé, with the argument (p. 140) that ‘There is no evidence that J.-J. Dussumier, considered to be the collector of the lectotype, ever visited Aldabra, but he is definitely known to have made collections on Mahé, in the granitic Seychelles.’ No doubt this is correct, but Dussumier was a merchant, and merchants buy interesting things from interesting places wherever they come across them. Museums all over the world are full of specimens obtained that way, and I can give a great many examples from the Leiden Museum that were received from collectors or travellers who did not visit the localities from where (part of) their material originated. Austin et al. (2003, p. 1421) write, quoting 19th-century references, that tortoises from Aldabra were shipped to the central Seychelles and other islands in those days, often in great numbers (see also Bour et al., BZN 67: 72–73; Cheke, BZN 67: 79–81, and Hoogmoed et al., 2010, p. 176). Even Frazier & Matyot (2010, p. 140) themselves stated that Dussumier was also known to have visited the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius and Ile Bourbon (La Réunion), where thousands of tortoises from the granitic Seychelles, as well as from Aldabra, had been imported; they confirm this on p. 142. So the fact that Dussumier himself never visited Aldabra cannot be put forward as an argument against the recorded provenance of this tortoise. Strangely, whereas Frazier in his letter to me of 7 July admits that ‘We have never said that it is impossible that Dussumier somehow (perhaps by trade, perhaps by purchase, perhaps by exchange?) obtained a tortoise from Aldabra’, the authors again ignore this obvious explanation in their latest comment, just saying (p. 141) that ‘there is no mention of any Dussumier tortoise from Aldabra’. In Leiden there is, disqualified as it may be by Frazier & Matyot.

These authors elaborate on three points: the very brief description by Gray (1831b) which they call (p. 141) ‘confused for many reasons’, the absence of an original label, and the data published by Schlegel in Temminck & Schlegel (1834) (see Tschudi, 1838 for Schlegel’s sole authorship) which they mistrust, erroneously quoting Hoogmoed (BZN 68: 74) in saying (p. 141) ‘the source of this is unknown’. I will address each of these subjects.

(1) Gray (1831b). – Gray’s original description is very brief indeed, but not at all ‘confused’. Gray enumerates the species of reptiles known to him, starting with the genus Testudo (p. 8), number 1 (p. 9) being ‘Test. Indica, (Indian Tortoise.)’. He mentions the specimens seen by him under the names by which they were arranged in the various collections. The Leiden one appears as follows: ‘Junior. Testa nigra margine laterali angulato, areolis magnis. Test. Dussumieri, Schlegel MSS. (v. Mus. Leyd.) – Pet. Gaz. t. 76, f. 4.’ (the latter reference does not relate to the Leiden animal); and further: ‘Habitat in India Orientali, Gen. Hardwicke, Insula Mauritiana, Insula Aldebra, M. Dussumiere.’ Gray had not the intention of describing a new species, but referred to a specimen in the Leiden Museum (v. = vide = see) identified by him as T. indica, and bearing the manuscript name ‘T. Dussumieri’ apparently used by Schlegel, then the Curator of Vertebrates and the herpetologist of the Leiden Museum. These manuscript notes (MSS being plural) could have been labels or any other written records relating to the specimen.

(2) Labels. – Regarding the lack of an original label: in the great majority of collections from the early 19th century, very few original labels (if there were any; data were often provided in the form of letters or other notes) have been preserved, and the Leiden Museum is no exception, unfortunately. Regarding alcohol specimens: many labels in jars faded with time, so had to be copied for that reason alone, or were glued to the outside of jars and could not be replaced when specimens were rearranged. New labels would bear the scientific names then in use, and in most cases did not repeat manuscript names that had become obsolete. This explains why the name Testudo Dussumieri was not entered onto the oldest label of this tortoise that still exists; in the meantime, both Gray and Schlegel had identified the specimen as T. indica. The same holds true for the first record in the museum’s written catalogue, which was composed much later.

(3) Schlegel (1834). – A few years after Gray’s (1831b) synopsis, the locality of this tortoise was specified by Schlegel, in the reptile volume of the Fauna Japonica edited by Temminck & Schlegel; the section on chelonians (pp. 1–80) was published in January 1834, see Holthuis & Sakai (1970, p. 75). Following Gray, Schlegel too, included the specimen in Testudo indica: ‘This institution has received another very young individual from the Paris Museum, communicated under the name of Test. Dussumieri, brought back by the traveller whose name it bears, from the island of Aldebra, situated in the north of the Mozambique Channel.’ (transl. from French). This is in line with Gray’s reference to the manuscript name ‘T. Dussumieri’ – even the spelling ‘Aldebra’ is the same. This text may be regarded as relatively good provenance for the specimen and support for the view that these data are genuine and had been provided by Paris, along with the accompanying manuscript name. Frazier & Matyot conclude (p. 141): ‘As Hoogmoed explained (BZN 68: 74 and following pages), it is unknown on what Temminck & Schlegel based this statement’, and further on: ‘The basis for his assertion now rests on Temminck & Schlegel’s (1834) above-quoted statement, although Hoogmoed acknowledges that the source of this is unknown’. This is a misquotation. On the contrary, Hoogmoed says (p. 74): ‘Temminck & Schlegel (1834) made the published, printed statement about name, collector, locality and specimen on the basis of documentation (in whichever form) they had received from Paris with the specimen concerned’, i.e. the information had been ‘communicated’ by the Paris Museum with the specimen in the form of a label or some other document.

The identity of the lectotype of Testudo dussumieri (Gray, 1831) Frazier & Matyot did not check the identity of RMNH 3231 themselves, either by studying the animal or by asking another herpetologist to provide a clear description, measurements and photographs. The tortoise has been studied by several herpetologists, professionals and knowledgeable amateurs, in recent years R. Bour, P.C.H. Pritchard, M.S. Hoogmoed and F. Grünewald. They have all independently identified it as an Aldabra tortoise; see Grünewald (BZN 67: 178) and Hoogmoed (BZN 68: 72). Excellent colour photographs have appeared in various publications, e.g. Gerlach (2004, p. 68) in a book reviewed by Frazier (2006b, p. 370 – ‘The photographs of rarely seen type specimens are valuable’) and Grünewald (2009, p. 137–138) who gives four photographs showing measurement scales. Frazier & Matyot have not criticized the findings of these authors, nor discussed the distinguishing characters used, and not commented on the published photographs. It is a young animal; even if this might be difficult to distinguish from similar specimens from other islands, that should be clearly stated and discussed. For want of any morphological evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to doubt the identifications by these herpetologists.

Finally, there are the genetic studies (Austin et al., 2003; Balmer et al., 2010) which have proved inconclusive. Frazier & Matyot (2010, p. 143) rightly conclude that ‘the taxonomic identity of the lectotype remains unresolved’; i.e. as far as genetic studies are concerned.


In their paper and comments, Frazier & Matyot reiterate that the provenance of RMNH 3231 is ‘uncertain’, but this uncertainty results from disbelieving the data accompanying the specimen. With so much uncertainty surrounding the lectotype, in their opinion the name Testudo dussumieri Gray, 1831 should really be suppressed. Whatever arguments there may be in favour of that on other grounds, any possible doubt concerning the provenance of the lectotype is not a sufficient reason.

Additional references

Balmer, O., Ciofi, C., Galbraith, D.A., Swingland, I.R., Zug, G.R. & Caccone, A. 2010. Population genetic structure of Aldabra giant tortoises. Journal of Heredity, Advance Access August 30, 2010: 1–9.

Frazier, J. & Matyot, P. 2010. On the identity of Monsieur Dussumier’s Dutch tortoise and the lectotype of Testudo dussumieri Gray, 1831. Zootaxa, 2665: 29–50.

Gerlach, J. 2004. Giant tortoises of the Indian Ocean. The genus Dipsochelys inhabiting the Seychelles Islands and the extinct giants of Madagascar and the Mascarenes. Frankfurter Beiträge zur Naturkunde/Frankfurt Contributions to Natural History, 21: 1–207. Edition Chimaira, Frankfurt am Main.

Grünewald, F. 2009. Museumcollecties. RMNH 3231 (Dipsochelys dussumieri) Gray, 1831.
Trionyx, 7: 136–142.

Holthuis, L.B. & Sakai, T. 1970. Ph. F. von Siebold and Fauna Japonica. A history of early Japanese zoology. 323 pp. Academic Press of Japan, Tokyo.

Hoogmoed, M.S., Gassó Miracle, M.E. & van den Hoek Ostende, L.W. 2010. Type specimens
of recent and fossil Testudines and Crocodylia in the collections of the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands. Zoologische Mededelingen Leiden, 84: 159–199.

Smeenk, C. 2009. Has one of Captain Cook’s possums landed in Leiden? The possible holotype of Pseudocheirus peregrinus (Boddaert, 1785). Zoologische Mededelingen Leiden, 83: 723–740.

Temminck, C.J. 1821. Calao à casque sillonné. Buceros sulcatus. Temm. In: Temminck, C.J. & Le Baron Meiffren Laugier de Chartrouse (Eds.), Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d’oiseaux, pour servir de suite et de complément aux planches enluminées de Buffon., Vol. 2. 2 pp., 1 pl. [unnumbered]. F.G. Levrault, Paris/Strasbourg & Legras Imbert & Comp., Amsterdam.

Temminck, C.J. 1824. Première monographie. Sur le genre Phalanger. – Phalangista. (Geoff.) (1). In: Monographies de mammalogie, ou description de quelques genres de mammifères, dont les espèces ont été observées dans les différens musées de l’Europe. Tome premier: 1–20, pls I-IV. G. Dufour & Ed. D’Ocagne, Paris/Amsterdam.

Schlegel, H. 1834. Les chéloniens. In: Temminck, C.J. & Schlegel, H. (Eds.), Fauna Japonica auctore Ph. Fr. de Siebold. Reptilia elaborantibus C.J. Temminck et H. Schlegel. 80 pp., 9 pls. J.G. Lalau, Lugduni Batavorum.

Tschudi, J.J. 1838. Classification der Batrachier, mit Berücksichtigung der fossilen Thiere dieser Abtheilung der Reptilien. Mémoires de la Société des Sciences Naturelles de Neuchâtel, 2: 1–99, pls 1–6.

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