Systematics sewn up

We all know who it was made the very controversial remark that "That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet”, and it is possible that the lines were written with a certain amount of personal feeling, since the indications are that Shakespeare had far more trouble naming his plays than writing them; where it is not possible to bestow on the play the name of its principal character, you will note that the titles are uninspired to the point of helplessness.

Beware therefore if, as a lesser mortal than Shakespeare, (I hope I write without overmuch presumption), the duty devolves upon you to name a shell; for the pitfalls are many and almost the whole of the subject of systematics consists of investigating the reasons why scientists should not have named animals and plants as they did. Once a name is in print it may not be ignored but however frivolously conceived, unless it can be proved to run counter to the Rules of Nomenclature, it must be entered permanently upon the synonymy of the creatures to which it is meant to apply. Undoubtedly in the past (and even, regrettably enough in fairly recent times), there have been scientists with a most irresponsible attitude to the naming of shells - and no doubt, of other creatures as well. Species have been described on the evidence of a single beach-worn valve, even on nothing but an operculum, but the main pitfalls and gins which beset our paths are perhaps provided by the zoologists who have siezed upon chance small variations, usually in an inherently variable group, and given them new names. It is not truly possible to give a specific name to a shell, with any honest conviction that the name is correctly applied, unless one has seen such a collection of specimens from various localities that one can be sure of, and can describe or figure, the full range of variation of the newly suggested species. Only if the thing is utterly and obviously different from all known forms may one dare to describe it on the basis of one or two specimens, leaving (rather unhappily) an assessment of the reasonable variability of the species to be assessed by someone when more examples of the thing turn up. Neither a splitter nor a lumper be, but let the shells, in sufficient quantity, speak for them-selves .

One conchologist, in reviewing a few melanid snails obtained from Lake Nyasa in the early days, ascribed them to about forty species divided among four genera which he described as new. Most of the shells were just slight variations of the normal forms, and there are certainly not more than six species, all in the genus Melanoides.

One hopes that one day a brave worker will resolve to revise and mono¬graph the family Thiaridae in which these shells occur; when such a star arises on the conchological horizon he will, on the conclusion of his work, deserve some scientific equivalent of the George Cross, for true it is that the conclusions of most of those who have laboured on this (and many another) family, provide little help to the man who now attempts to put things in order, but rather they have, by the very energy of their over hasty conclusions, made his task so difficult as to be well-nigh hopeless.

Perhaps you believe that your new shell belongs to some genus which has not yet been described; be advised - try and get somebody a long way off, whom you do not know very well, to undertake the work. A great many genera have been described in the animal kingdom - certainly over a million, I imagine - and if your name has been used once before, for whatever kind of creature, then your name is invalid. There are lists of course, but they take a great deal of going through before you can be sure of yourself, remembering always, that there are those who do go through them for the academic pleasure of pointing out scientists' mistakes in such matters. The South American snail subgenus Microborus, as readers of the Journal of Conchology will know, recently had to be renamed Austroborus, as the name was found to have been previously bestowed on a beetle. The well known genus Cerastus has now, by an ingeniously minimal adjustment, to be known as Cerastua, and Sarama Godwin- Austin 1908, preoccupied by a Pyralid, was renamed Rasama by Laidlaw. Examples are commoner than you might think.

What you may do to avoid this trap is to think up a name so horrible in its ingenuity that you may be morally certain that nobody else could ever have used it before. The result however, is unlikely to be euphonious. Kerkophorus, Limicolariopsis, etc., belong to this category, and I think, even Scrobs, while the excrutiating Halolimnohelix is certainly unlikely to have been given to anything but a snail with an inferiority complex.

Another fairly safe thing you can do is to invent a name of your own, not derived from Latin nor any other language, and which neither means, nor is intended to mean, anything at all. There is no objection to this. Clanculus, for instance, is an honourable example, and Vanikoro, which is supposed to have been inspired by some native word, and is hence classified as 'barbarous'.

Perhaps it is merely a species which you wish to name, and in certain ways your task this time is easier. You must be quite sure that an identical name has not been given to any other species within the genus, and that your proposal cannot offend any personal, moral or religious susceptibilities; .jehoveh for instance, has been rejected. It may strike you at first glance that the names given to shells are in latin - in fact you may have heard some people speak respectfully of the 'latin names'. In actual fact this is not so; many names are horrible mongrels of latin and greek. No objection can be raised to names in other languages such as arabic for instance (asffhar Biggs) and others, by employing the names of deserving scientists with unsuitable patronymics, nod haughtily at the latin usage by adding a letter or two at the end to reach agreement in gender with the generic name. As examples I give you macgillivrayi and milne-Edwardsi. Few Romans would recognise such flights of fancy, and when it comes to desmoulinsiana or deslongchampsia, I am uncertain whether to pronounce them in 'latin' or in their native tongue. I cannot recollect anybody naming a species after Tapparone-Canefri, Moquin-Tandon or Della Chiaje.

Such tongue twisters are necessarily frequent, and goodness knows how many people have been put off the study of zoology by them. They engender a suspicious attitude at least in my own obstinately perverse type of mind, which persists in considering even the honest latin name Ena montana more likely to refer to a female American film star than to a snail; I would however, be the first to admit that the reverse would certainly be true of Ena obscura. When confronted with Aoteadrilla wanganuiensis Hutton or Axymene waipipicola (Webster), the mind refuses to function further. I am waiting for a valid species of the genus Helix to turn up in the hope that some young scientist may happily bestow upon it the good latin appendage felix.

Many will no doubt consider all this an egregiously frivolous attitude to the learned science of systematics, but I must repeat that cavalier treatment is by no means rare. It was Iredale for instance, perhaps because he had temporarily run out of names, and wishing to pay tribute to his wife, who named a shell berylsma; another rather stunted little holotype became possessed of the label pooretchia. Beware, however; as you probably know, there is an International Commission on Nomenclature which sits on these things; and although some have expressed their opinion that it does not sit hard enough, it does have its limits. As Mayr points out in the standard work on the subject, names impossible of pronunciation such as Aaages or Zyzzyra, or which sound identical whenpronounced (as cocana and kokana of Kearfott 1907), or which are merely saucy like Polychisme, Peggychisme and Nanichisme (Kirkaldy 190^), are not to be regarded as sufficiently responsible to uphold the reputation of zoology among the sciences. For a similar reason the Commission, taking a deep breath, threw out Cancelloidokytodermogammarus (Loveninskytodermop;ammarus) loveni Dybowsky 1926. Luckily, these last few examples were not culled from the phylum Mollusca.

Suppose your new Pisidium or what-not is slightly larger or rougher than any known before. You could call it maximus or colossus or spinissimus and the name would probably be valid, but think of the difficulties you bequeath to a successor, possibly not yet born, who finds a larger or more prickly species still, and who has by you been denied the use of any superlatives. Your shell may be the first to come from China perhaps, or Japan, and sinensis or japonicus might be excellent trivial names but for the possibility that a dozen more species may yet be discovered from the same areas, none of them more or less 'japonicus' than yours. Lots of creatures have in fact, been named after New Zealand, for instance, but the latinised forms of this delightful country bring to mind the devil in being legion. They include novaezelandiae, neozelanicus, zelandica, zeelandona, zelandiae, novozelandica, zealandicus, novozealandica and novoseelandica among the molluscs alone.

It may occur to you if you have read this far, that the field for naming shells is not as wide as might have been thought; or alternatively that I am presenting the situation in a mood of disenchantment. How then, you are entitled to ask, can we safely and effectively name our new discoveries? This in fact, I am quite unable to tell you. Perhaps after all it was a good idea of Bourguignat's to name species after his friends' daughters, just because they were beautiful girls; for myself, it may yet come about that I shall have a shell or two to name during the rest of my conchological career, and I have no ideas in store for these, let alone any to throw away on other people. It might be for me, a fine idea to name my next shell munchauseni - at least I should be sure of somebody quickly and automatically relegating it to the synonymy.

T. E. Crowley