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Megapnosaurus: undoing a nomenclatural "prank"

From: Ben Creisler bh480@scn.org
Megapnosaurus: undoing a nomenclatural "prank"

The reason some people such as myself are unhappy is not, 
as someone recently proposed, because three 
entomologists "dared" name a dinosaur, or because the 
proposed name "Megapnosaurus" is a "joke," but because 
Ivie et al.'s actions amount to a tasteless and 
unprincipled stunt at the expense of the scientist who 
discovered and has studied the taxon being renamed. From 
Mike Raath's own comments, it appears that the ICZN Code 
of Ethics may have been ignored in the process, and that 
Dr. Raath was apparently not informed about the 
preoccupied status of Syntarsus until recently, and not by 
Ivie.  Ivie claims he sent a letter back in the  1990s but 
never got a reply--logically, though, he should have 
checked the literature to see if Raath replaced the name 
Syntarsus. Since Raath wrote a paper using the name 
Syntarsus in 1999, it would have indicated he did not 
receive Ivie's letter and he should have been contacted 
again.  Worst of all, someone allegedly told Ivie that 
Raath was deceased, but this piece of misinformation was 
easy to refute--Raath was working as an editor on the 
journal Palaeontologica Africana.  At the very least, more 
diligence on the part of Ivie would have avoided the 
appearance of a breach of ethics.

I strongly suspect instead that the momentum of Ivie et 
al.'s nomenclatural "stunt"--the "first dinosaur" named in 
an entomological journal, plus the novelty of its '"joke" 
name--overrode basic procedures in scholarship and led 
them to downplay obvious ethical questions. As a result, a 
glaring injustice has been done to Mike Raath--
essentially, Ivie et al.  expropriated his taxon for the 
sake of a nomenclatural "prank."  Clearly, the fairer 
outcome would be for Mike to publish his planned 
replacement name for Syntarsus, retain authorship, and 
have his replacement name used in the literature.

Repairing this mess, however, will be tricky. The 
International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature "is 
not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches 
of [the principles of the Code of Ethics]." In this case,  
Principles 3, 4 and 6 of the Code of Ethics  are at issue:

3. A zoologist should not publish a new replacement name 
(a nomen novum) or other substitute name for a junior 
homonym when the author of the latter is alive; that 
author should be informed of the homonymy and be allowed a 
reasonable time (at least a year) in which to establish a 
substitute name. [Mike claims he was not contacted by Ivie-
-Ivie claims he sent a letter.]

4. No author should propose a name that, to his or her 
knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give 
offense on any grounds. [The "joke" name in this case 
clearly offended Mike Raath, and likely gave some offense 
or irritation to other researchers who did not appreciate 
its dismissive take ("big dead lizard") on Raath's 
dinosaur research.]

6. Editors and others responsible for the publication of 
zoological papers should avoid publishing any material 
which appears to them to contain a breach of the above 
principles. [Clearly, the editors at Insecta Mundi should 
have checked with Dr. Raath on their own about his plans 
for the name Syntarsus.]

My own suggestion for now would be to treat Ivie's 
nomenclatural actions as a prank, and to impose 
a "boycott" on the name "Megapnosaurus" in any formal 
literature. References to Raath's taxon should be in the 
form "Syntarsus" (in quotes)--indicating an resolved 
nomenclatural or taxonomic problem, and Ivie et al.'s 
paper should not be cited. 

Mike should go ahead and publish his planned replacement 
name for Syntarsus without citing Ivie et al.'s work or 
the name "Megapnosaurus." Paleontologists could use 
Raath's name for the taxon once it's published.

Since the ICZN can act when the issue is usage rather than 
ethics, a refusal by scholars to use the 
name "Megapnosaurus" (published as a prank) in formal 
literature would provide a de facto basis for an appeal to 
the ICZN: the name has never been used, will never be 
used, and should be suppressed in favor of the junior 
objective synonym proposed by Raath. 

I plan to write to the editors of Insecta Mundi and to the 
Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature to submit a few 
comments on the ethics of "nomenclatural pranks" pulled at 
the expense of living scientists.