TAXONOMIC FREEDOM AND THE ROLE OF OFFICIAL LISTS OF SPECIES NAMES

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Abstract

The sixth edition of the Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America (Crother, 2008, SSAR Herpetological Circular 37:1–84) is the "Official Names List" for the three major North American herpetological societies. Although this publication is intended to aid users of scientific and common names, we argue that current practices for authoring, reviewing, and using this list, in some cases, generate taxonomic chaos. By this we mean that users are uncertain of which name to use and/or the rationale for using a particular name, and efficient communication is hindered by this confusion. Most importantly, through inadequate and inconsistent review of this list, the societies have endorsed unnecessary and arbitrary name changes and are uncritically promoting individual taxonomic viewpoints when a clear choice on the most appropriate name has not been reached by the community. This problem is exemplified by North American anurans for which 57 of the 100 species have scientific names (i.e., genus-species combinations) different from the previous version of the list. Forty-eight of these new combinations result from changes to the genus name, and there is controversy over the proposed genus names for at least 43 of these. Despite this controversy and that a stated goal of the list is to report on such controversies, the alternative names are not discussed. As a result, for these taxa, the list fails to provide adequate information for users to make informed decisions on name usage. Here, we examine the role of such lists in taxonomy. Although we specifically focus on the arbitrary changes to the names of North American Bufo and Rana, the continuation of current practices for generating the list will promote instability and taxonomic confusion on a broader scale. We conclude with recommendations for improving the utility of such lists and for avoiding unnecessary taxonomic chaos.

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