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Priority! The Dating of Scientific Names in Ornithology

…an important scholarly work

Priority! The Dating of Scientific Names in Ornithology - A Directory to the Literature and its Reviewers - Compiled by Edward C. Dickinson, Leslie K. Overstreet, Robert J. Dowsett and Murray D. Bruce | 320 pages with data CD ROM inserted | 2011 Aves Press | ISBN 9780956861115 Why do we refer to the Mallard by the scientific name Anas platyrhynchos (Linnaeus, 1758) rather than Anas boschas (Linnaeus, 1758)? After all, the same person gave the same species two scientific names in the same year. Why choose one rather than the other to stand forever as the valid name for the species? The answer is the Principle of Priority; the guiding rule of scientific nomenclature which states that “The valid name of a taxon is the oldest available name applied to it”. In other words, whichever name appeared in print first – even if it appeared on an earlier page of the same work – must be the recognised name of that organism.

OK, so that should be pretty straightforward, right? Well, not always. Let us take a hypothetical example. I am describing a newly-discovered species of leaf-warbler, and my detailed description of Phylloscopus fantasticus appears in the peer-reviewed Journal for New Birdies dated January 2012. My taxonomic rival, working in Germany on the same new species, hurries to get his description of what he calls Phylloscopus deutschlandensis into print. It appears in the esteemed pages of Zeitschrift für neuen Vogel dated February 2012. So, on the face of it, I have ‘won’ the race and the species will ever-more be known as Phylloscopus fantasticus. Except….the UK journal, despite being dated for January, is actually printed and published in March 2012. The efficient German publishing machine gets the Zeitschrift published in February. So the name Phylloscopus deutschlandensis actually sees print first, and thus my own name is destined to languish in the backwaters of ornithological nomenclature as a mere junior synonym.If the above makes your head ache, it probably means that you won’t be putting Priority! The Dating of Scientific Names in Ornithology on your ‘must buy’ Christmas shopping list. This book looks in detail at some of the problem areas of correct dating in scientific bird names. It lists those books and journals which present problems of varying degrees when it comes to their date of publication. As one example we might take no less a subject than Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America’, which appeared in 87 parts of 5 plates each, many of the plates being dated but some not, and “some plates are known to have appeared prior to the date engraved upon them.” Issues over correct dating can have implications as to which scientific name becomes accepted as the ‘proper’ one.

My feeling is that this important scholarly work is destined to appeal to a rather narrow market. The information given on a large number of (often well known) natural history books and journals will certainly be of interest to bibliophiles as well as those with a serious interest in zoological nomenclature. However, if your main attraction to ornithology is ‘What species might I see on my next foreign trip?’ (and there’s nothing wrong with that) you might find this book rather heavy going. One for the specialist rather than the generalist, methinks.

Guest Reviewer - Michael Grayson

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