By Dominic Evangelista
As a subject editor for the journal Zookeys, I recently officiated one paper that recounted an incredible story. The paper by Xin-Ran Li and Zong-Qing Wang addresses one very specific taxonomic problem of a little suffix for a very cute cockroach.
Typically, human classification schemes bring slightly more order to the complex natural world. Yet there are times, in our attempt to sort order from complexity, when we do exactly the opposite. In fact, sometimes our quest for order turns out to be an impressive approximation of pure mathematical chaos. Even on behalf of the most inconsequential trivia.
A problem that needs suf-fixing
Paris, 1831. A man named Jean Audinet-Serville working in the Natural History Museum of the most romantic city in the world. Presumably being a man of romance and high culture himself, Jean spent that year describing new species of cockroaches, and he happened to erect a genus he called “Périsphère.”
He used this French name to refer to a very peculiar group of cockroaches that roll into a ball (“sphère” = sphere). Jean knew that this name was not satisfactory, despite the fact that it had those cute little accent marks. It was a French name, and only Latin names are officially scientific. So, he “Latinized” this French name, and “Périsphère” then became “Perisphaerus.”
Unfortunately, Jean was not a scholar of Latin and he messed it up. “Perisphaerus” was not the correct translation of “Périsphère!”
Change scene. 1838, Berlin, then capital of Prussia. Hermann Burmeister, a stickler for grammar and (presumably) with a distaste for the French, appears to have described a genus he called “Perisphaeria.” In this genus, he put a few species from Africa, plus the one Asian species described by Jean Audinet-Serville.
In retrospect, Burmeister was kind of a jerk. I say this not because of his blunt attempt to fix a colleague’s minor error. I say this because of the ensuing kerfuffle that would last almost 200 years.
To put it as confusingly as possible, this is what happened from start to finish:
Serville described Perisphaerus, which is an incorrect translation of Périsphère. Burmeister corrected Perisphaerus to Perisphaeria. Serville rejected Perisphaeria and corrected Perisphaerus to Perisphaera (not to be confused with Perisphaeria). Charles Brunner von Wattenwyl (1865) erected the family Perisphaeridae based on Perisphaeria. Karlis Princis (1947) used both Perisphaeria and Perisphaerus separately and included only Perisphaeria in his new family Perisphaeriidae (Princis 1960), while putting Perisphaerus in another family altogether. These two families were then synonymized into Perisphaeriidae, but contained both Perisphaeria and the older name Perisphaerus (Roth 2003). Lucas (1863) considered Perisphaeria to be incompatible with Perisphaera (ignoring “Perisphaerus”) and erected Hyposphaeria as a replacement for Perisphaeria.
The mystery of the asterisk
We clearly have a cacophonous case of careless characters. Before we try and sort out the solution to this mess, who is to blame?
It was Burmeister’s vagary that made people do the wrong thing in not using Serville’s spelling.
Another reason why I blame Burmeister is that he placed African species that don’t roll into a ball into a genus for Asian species that do roll into a ball! Preposterous indeed. Although later authors may have liked Burmeister’s spelling, they didn’t like that he put un-sphère-ous perispherines in Perisphaerus (Princis 1947). Lucas fixed this problem first by erecting Hyposphaeria, one of the less confusing names in this story.
How to fix the problem?
Putting blame aside, we should be constructive and consider the solution. Let’s look to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to give some clarity to this situation.
According to the ICZN, Perisphaerus is the original spelling, unless we can prove that one Jean Audinet-Serville made an error inadvertently, which we think he did since he himself attempted to correct the error later. However, the code gives an exception that specifically says incorrect Latinization does not count as an error (Article 32.5)! Although a scholar of ancient Rome may have a problem with the word Perisphaerus, the ICZN says it’s a correct original spelling.
This means that Hermann Burmeister corrected something that didn’t need to be corrected. But, just because it didn’t NEED to be corrected doesn’t mean that it COULDN’T be corrected.
What does the ICZN say about Burmeister being a grammar Nazi? According to Article 33, Burmeister’s spelling is either an “emendation” (a change or correction) or an “incorrect subsequent spelling.” It has yet to be shown that Burmeister stated his intention to change the name, or that he treated other names in the same manner. The asterisk makes his intention a bit hard to interpret, but we’ve already discussed that. In the end, the ruling is that we shouldn’t accept his spelling as a correct one.
Although I am taking sides on the naming issue, Burmeister shouldn’t be vilified. After all, Serville’s original report of the genus Perisphaerus is exactly nine lines long and includes such staggeringly scientific descriptions as “very rounded in front and on the sides,” and “abdomen large,” as well as the electrifying phrase “short legs.” Burmeister’s description of the genus is significantly longer — a respectable length of one full page. We can give Serville credit for the name of the genus, but we can give Burmeister credit for being a bit more thorough in his description of the taxon.
The current subfamily (Perisphaerinae) that would eventually originate from that nine-line description now has 19 genera and 174 species. Hopefully the subfamily will continue to be valid as more work is done. Otherwise, we’ll have to start over from sphère one.
Any opinions expressed here are mine and not of Li and Wang.
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Dominic Evangelista is a PhD candidate studying the biodiversity and systematics of the cockroaches of the Guiana Shield. Visit his website (roachbrain.com), follow him on twitter at @Roach_Brain, and ask him a question about cockroaches!