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Geckos, David Attenborough & ICZN

Oedura monilis or the ocellated velvet gecko is found in Queensland. (Supplied: Stephen Zozaya).

Genelle Weule, The Australian gecko that was named after David Attenborough (for a while), ABC Science, 8 May 2023

With its chunky head, big endearing eyes and soft, pudgy-looking tail, the ocellated velvet gecko is one of Conrad Hoskin’s favourite Australian reptiles.

“It is a big, beautiful gecko,” said Dr Hoskin, a herpetologist at James Cook University.

“It’s got these variable spots and bars down its back. The spots are in lovely tones of brown and orange, and the bars are white so they really pop.”

Officially known as Oedura monilis, the nocturnal gecko is found scurrying in rock crevasses or up trees in northern New South Wales and Queensland.

In the 1980s, it was also named Oedura attenboroughi by a pair of Australian reptile enthusiasts.

Technically, it was the first of what is now a very long list of species named after Sir David Attenborough, who turns 97 today.

Sir David Attenborough has six Australian living or extinct species named after him (if you count the gecko).(Getty Images: Gareth Cattermole).

At last count, there were more than 50 living or extinct species of animals, plants, or other organisms, named after the revered natural historian.

But the name didn’t stick.

Oedura attenboroughi sits there in the footnotes of history, but it’s not a name we’ll ever use,” Dr Hoskin said.

To understand why, we need to take a trip back to an infamous taxonomic kerfuffle that rocked Australian science.

Wells and Wellington affair

Biologist Rick Shine was the president of the Australian Society of Herpetologists when a “dynamic, young reptile enthusiast” by the name of Richard Wells up-ended the scientific community.

Page with writing on it

Australian Journal of Herpetology Vol 1, no 1 cover(Wikimedia commons: Australian Herpetologists League).

Mr Wells had started a new herpetology journal, but after a couple of peer-reviewed editions, he published a major overhaul of Australian reptiles and amphibians written by himself and his colleague Ross Wellington.

Wells and Wellington proposed more than 700 changes to the classification system, including adding 90 new genera and 360 new species.

“Richard and Ross made the interesting argument that the current taxonomy and nomenclature grossly underestimated the diversity of what was in Australia,” Professor Shine of Macquarie University, said.

“And that was a problem for conservation, because if you didn’t know that it was a separate species, then it wouldn’t warrant special conservation concern.”

Their work, which became known as the Wells and Wellington affair, caused a major kerfuffle at the society’s “normally boring” annual general meeting, Professor Shine recalled.

“It aroused surprising levels of passion; some people were incandescent with rage.”

Their efforts were branded “terrorist tactics”.

Principle of priority

The first person to describe a new species gets to name it under rules set down by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).

Under the “Principle of Priority”, that name is the one everyone is supposed to use regardless of what it is.

Because Wells and Wellington’s taxonomic changes resulted in hundreds of new species, the pair needed a long list of new names.

“There was a lot of strange stuff …[in Wells and Wellington’s structure ] like naming a genus after Darth Vader,” Professor Shine said.

Nods to movie characters or actors are not so unusual today.

There are now at least 13 species, mostly invertebrates, named after the dark villain from Star Wars.

And an entire genus of antibiotics known as Keanumycins has recently been named after Keanu Reeves because he was “deadly in his roles”.

But it was more than names that ruffled feathers at the time (although some herpetologists declined to be associated with species named after them).

The problem was Wells and Wellington didn’t strictly stick to conventions traditionally used by taxonomists.

“There is quite a complicated and long-held set of practises that enable you to make a valid species description,” Professor Shine said.

These include being able to explain where it comes from, and how it compares to a “holotype” specimen in a museum.

If a specimen has the same characteristics as the holotype it carries the same name, but if it is substantially different it becomes a new species.

“Famously, taxonomists can take a decade to describe something that’s new, which is really inconvenient for everybody,” Professor Shine said.

In 1984, the Australian Society of Herpetologists petitioned the ICZN to suppress all the new taxonomic categories proposed by Wells and Wellington, saying the work would throw the entire process of identifying and naming species into disarray.

Seven years later the ICZN closed the case.

In its ruling it stated:

“The Commission deplores the clear rejection by Wells and Wellington of virtually every tenet of the voluntary Code of Ethics.”

“However the Commission is not authorised to base rulings on such breaches, or on the erection of new taxa however unjustified.”

The Wells and Wellington Affair was just the first example of what became known as taxonomic vandalism.

Since then, there have been a number of other cases where species have been described without following taxonomic conventions, including being named after family members or pets.

As a result, herpetologists have banded together and published a list of names published after 2000 they say should not be recognised, as well as lists of accepted species and journals.

Taxonomy Australia also weighed in on the issue, publishing a code of conduct which supports overriding the ICZN principle of priority if a name doesn’t meet scientific standards.

“You’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” Dr Hoskin said, adding it’s about having trust in the science on which conservation decisions are based.

Twist in the gecko’s tale

Nearly 40 years on from Wells and Wellington, we have a far better idea of the diversity of Australian reptiles and amphibians.

“Subsequent to the great Wells and Wellington affair … genetics came along and it turned out there were vastly more species out there,” Professor Shine said.

“A few of them correspond to what Richard and Ross identified.”

But most species the pair classified had been previously discovered and named so the majority of their new names became redundant.

“When there are a few of these names floating around, it can be really hard to know what they were talking about just because they never gave sufficient detail in the first place.”

Oedura attenboroughi was one of those species.

It had been named by Wells and Wellington based on a specimen at the Australian Museum.

In 2019, after two years of detective work, Dr Hoskin got to the bottom of what O. attenboroughi was.

Herpetologist Conrad Hoskin has discovered many new species of geckos and had some species named after him. (Supplied: James Cook University).

The hardest part, he said, was working out what species the name O. monilis referred to.

The gecko was first described in 1888 by English zoologist Charles Walter de Vis based on a specimen housed at the Queensland Museum.

“It took a year or two looking at specimens and working out the important characteristics to match the sparse original description,” Dr Hoskin said.

“Once I had worked that out, the attenboroughi bit was quick because the holotype specimen for that name is in good condition and I could clearly attribute it to O. monilis.”

Unfortunately for Wells and Wellington that meant their name attenboroughi was a bit too late down the track.

“Those geckos already had a name.”

But in a twist of fate, it also turned out there were two populations of velvet geckos living in the north and south of Queensland that looked very similar, but were genetically different.

And only those in the north, which had been named attenboroughi, matched the holotype of O. monilis. The southern populations were an entirely new species.

Had Wells and Wellington described this species, the name O. attenboroughi would still be in use today.

“We would have ended up with a species split in two where we had the original name O monilis up north, and the name O attenboroughi given to the other populations,” Dr Hoskin said.

Instead, he called the new species O. elegans as a nod to its elegant shape.

“Fortunately for me, the southern populations didn’t have a name so you get that kind of fun and exciting procedure of giving a species a name.”

What’s in a name?

Dr Hoskin has found many new species in the field.

“The minute you find them, you know, it’s a new species and it’s like a real eureka moment.”

Conrad Hoskin stands in the shade of bushland, looking over green valley and hill opposite.

Conrad Hoskin surveying for Oedura monilis at Cape Cleveland. (Supplied: Conrad Hoskin).

While he’s named a few species after people who’ve done a lot of work with reptiles, and even had a few named after him, he’s never been tempted to name something after someone famous or a fictional character.

“I love David Attenborough – he’s a legend – but I don’t think I would consider naming a gecko in outback Queensland after him because there seems to me there’s not the clearest link between those two things.”

“I like the name to be about that species and preferably not really linked up to humans too much because the species has been there so much longer,” he said.

“I’ve probably named maybe 10 or more species with local language names.”

When once asked about how he felt about having a species named after him David Attenborough had a similar view.

“To be quite truthful, it’s a bit embarrassing to be named after anything,” he said.

“I suspect the ideal names are not named after people but describe the characteristics of that creature which are distinctive.

“But you do run out of those names after a while so people name to pay compliments, at least I hope they are compliments.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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