Comments on the proposed conservation of usage of Testudo gigantea Schweigger, 1812 (currently Geochelone (Aldabrachelys) gigantea; Reptilia, Testudines) 30

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2009
Authors:F. Schmidt
Journal:Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature
Start Page:288
Date Published:09/2009
Type of Article:Comment
Full Text

I agree with Dodd (BZN 66: 179) that Case 3463 is
really an excellent article. I am a scientifically educated biologist
but work now in ‘applied biology’ as curator for reptiles at one of
Europe’s largest zoos (26 hectares, 870 animal species, 1.7 million
visitors each year). I think naming of animals has so many consequences
for further biological research, for education and especially for
conservation and the national and international laws enabling
conservation, that it is in the interest of all concerned professionals
to follow and influence such discussions. In this respect I strongly
agree with dozens of colleagues who have already commented on this
point. I am often asked about the correct name for the Aldabra tortoise
and I can’t really tell them, because it is such a complicated story
with so many names for just one species. However I always point out
that in the official documents of international organisations such as
CITES or IUCN or ISIS the species is still referred to as Geochelone gigantea.
I am also Vice Chair of the Reptile Taxon Advisory Group (RTAG) within
the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). This group gives
advice to all European Zoos on reptilian questions. In our regional
collection plan for EAZA we have listed the species as Geochelone gigantea and
we do not intend to change that, because we have the same thoughts
expressed in Case 3463 regarding the need for nomenclatural stability.
Furthermore as public zoos we have a great responsibility in educating
our visitors. It is very important to understand the unique impact that
zoos in the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums have on public
education; it is estimated that more than 600 million visitors come to
zoos each year. I know from personal visits to hundreds of zoos that
the specific name gigantea is used by the huge majority when
referring to the Aldabra tortoise. From this you can imagine how many
people around the world have come to know the Aldabra tortoise by the
species name gigantea. This fact is actually recognised by
the few people who are proposing to change the name of this animal, and
Case 3463 clearly gives several examples where people proposing another
name (BZN 66: 40) have found it necessary to clarify that the same animal is more frequently known by the name gigantea.
Additionally, our zoos provide training and assistance to customs
officers in many countries for enforcement of conservation and trade
laws. For these purposes we need a name that remains stable, and over
the years we have always referred to the Aldabra tortoise by the
species name gigantea. Changing this name produces confusion
and chaos, just where we need stability and universality to be able to
strictly implement laws and regulations.

  Even if it should turn out that the holotype of Testudo gigantea Schweigger
(1812) is not an Aldabra tortoise, there is still the central
importance that the ICZN Code gives to stability and universality. In
my opinion, the Preamble in the Principles of the Code declares the
nomenclatural stability as an overriding concern of the ICZN.

  So the most important question here is what is stability? Bour & Pritchard (BZN 66:
169) resist letting usage, consensus and majority decide about a
scientific name. But aren’t usage, consensus and majority the features
that characterise stability? The debate about Case 3463 is not about
whether some name has priority over gigantea because this
name is clearly older than the alternate names that have been proposed 
for the Aldabra tortoise, but Cheke’s comment indicates that he
appreciates the importance of nomenclatural stability. He admits in his
comment (BZN 66: 174), that ‘This [using a name that
does not conform to the rule of priority] should surely only be done if
there is an absolutely cast-iron case to preserve a thoroughly
established name, the loss of which would cause substantial confusion
and upheaval amongst users’. Does this situation with the species name
of the Aldabra tortoise not already now cause substantial confusion and
upheaval amongst users? This is even accepted by one of the opponents:
Pritchard (1986) wrote ‘Of course, invalidation of the familiar epithet
gigantea represents a rather profound upheaval’. Personally I
can’t recognise a significant difference in the meanings of the
adjectives substantial and profound. Gerlach writes (BZN 66:
184) ‘that a very strong case [for using a name that does not conform
the rule of priority] would be needed for such a change to be
acceptable’. Unfortunately he doesn’t provide any examples, whereas in
another comment Bour & Pritchard (BZN 66: 170) refer to Drosophila melanogaster, Tyrannosaurus rex and Homo erectus. I do not understand why these three species are regarded in a different view from Geochelone gigantea. Is Drosophila melanogaster more charismatic than Geochelone gigantea? Do laymen know more about Drosophila melanogaster than about Geochelone gigantea? Is Homo erectus really more often in the mass media than Geochelone gigantea,
of which reports about ‘birthday parties’ for oldest inhabitants of
zoological collections are regularly in the newspapers around the
globe? At least I can tell from my experience of daily work in a zoo
that a giant tortoise is one of the most popular animal species
visitors are looking for.
  I was very surprised to read
arguments in the comments on Case 3463 for and against different genus
names. As far as I know, the genus name is not a topic for this ICZN
decision, other than making sure that Aldabrachelys,
which was specifically created by Loveridge & Williams (1957) for
the Aldabra tortoise and its close relatives, is available for this
taxon. I also have difficulty understanding why authors who resist
letting ‘usage, consensus and majority’ influence the name gigantea, in the same comment are in favour of Dipsochelys because ‘Aldabrachelys was rarely used until recently’ (Bour & Pritchard, BZN 66: 173), a declaration which contradicts an earlier statement by Pritchard (1986, p. 532) that Aldabrachelys has
been ‘in regular use’. I don’t know why ‘usage, consensus and majority’
should be considered for a genus but not for a species name.

  Stability in the name of this unique and charismatic species is
wished for by all involved parties, and the only way to reach this aim
is by giving it the name it deserves, Geochelone gigantea.

  Stability of the name of this unique and charismatic species is
wished for by all parties involved. When this issue is finally
resolved, I am anticipating that many unresolved biological questions
and necessary conservation issues will be addressed more thoroughly.
Personally I don’t think stability will be established by the name dussumieri,
as many professionals are not very familiar with decisions in
nomenclatural and taxonomic debates. Therefore I think the only way to
reach stability is by giving the Aldabra tortoise the name it deserves,
Geochelone gigantea.

Taxonomic Group(s): 
Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith