Here We Go Again: Darwinius, the ICZN, and the Online Publication of Taxonomic Names

I brought this up back in February regarding the new stegosaur Miragaia longicollum; about how regardless of the claims made by journals, unless the guidelines put forth by the International Committee of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) regarding publication are adhered to (i.e., hard copy placed in at least five libraries that are explicitly identified in the document) published names in online only publications are simply not valid. Now a similar case is coming under heavy discussion.

The newly described primate Darwinius masillae (Franzen et al., 2009) has been receiving tons of press heralded as being a 'missing link' in primate evolution (however see this article in Laelaps), however, it is not only the phylogentic position and its interpretation that is being hotly debated. Now the validity of the taxonomic name is being called into question because the name was published in the online-only journal PLoS One. Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom has a great discussion of this. Check it out.

Hopefully the ICZN will soon amend the code as advocated by Harris (2004) to deal with the increasing trend of online only journals and the early online releases (ahead of print versions) now popular with many journals.

This is becoming a serious problem.


Franzen, J., Gingerich, P., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., von Koenigswald, W., & Smith, B. (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

Harris, J.D. 2004. 'Published Works' in the electronic age: recommended amendments to Articles 8 and 9 of the Code. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 61:138-148.


  1. Bill, my continuing adventures on the ICZN mailing list are not encouraging: there is A LOT of opposition to recognising electronic-only publishing from old-schoolers who do not believe that digital papers can be adequately conserved and reliably found. That makes no sense to me, but that's reality as the community around the Code sees it.

  2. It seems to me that the code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance. Its very existence depends on the community agreeing to respect and adhere to its rules. I strongly suspect that people will simply ignore the restriction on electronic publications and continue to cite and use Darwinius, Panphagia, etc. etc. as valid taxa. And if people use them as valid taxa, well then dammit, code or not, they ARE valid taxa.
    The code has to be flexible enough to serve the needs of the community (admitedly while being rigid enough to provide the stability that it was invented for in the first place. If it doesn't maybe an expanded phylocode that deals with species as well as clades will supersede the ICZN altogether. Interesting times, no?

  3. I think that among many, the code *will* become an irrelevance on account of issues like this. Even if some idiot went and renamed taxa like Maiacetus and Darwinius and Panphagia in a "valid" format (which would like mean an obscure journal of limited circulation), I suspect that people would ignore these sorts of papers in favor of the original description. I know that I would!

  4. Guys, the ICZN discussion is over....PLoS made the requiered printed copies of all the articles that include new species.
    Ricardo Martinez (Panphagia author)

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Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS