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Taxonomania: An Incomplete Catalog of Invented Species

There have been cases where completely fictional species have been given taxonomic names in scientific journals. These articles are often presented as humor, such as Haggis scoticus vulgaris, but there have been cases where an article on a nonexistent species was submitted to reveal the lack of rigorous peer-review in publishing. This was the case with a flea named Ctenophthalmus nepalensis. Despite the many weird names given to new species, there are rules in taxonomy. In 1975, Peter Scott and Robert Rines published an article in the journal Nature that described the species Nessiteras rhombopteryx. We know the animal as the Loch Ness Monster. The research was based on photographs and the ability of the environment to sustain such a creature, which is not that unusual in science.   

But let’s return to the question of whether Nessiteras rhombopteryx is nomenclaturally available, which remains unanswered. Is it a valid name, according to the zoological nomenclature rules? Description, diagnosis, name, publication — check, check, check, check. The discussion is therefore focused instead on whether Nessiteras rhombopteryx names a hypothetical concept, in which case it wouldn’t fall under the purview of zoological nomenclature. Many people would surely assert that Nessie is a creature of myth and legend, lacking a biological manifestation in Loch Ness or anyplace else on Earth, which would therefore indicate a hypothetical concept. However, an important tenet of taxonomy is that, first and foremost, what is published is valid. Based on the publication, there’s no doubt that both Scott and Rines are thoroughly convinced that Nessie exists. In other words, the description of Nessiteras rhombopteryx was not published explicitly for a hypothetical concept, and it’s doubtful that the opinion held by many, if not most, scientists—that is, that Nessie is not real—could be reason enough to strike the name from the list of animal species in Great Britain. So there’s a lot to suggest that Nessiteras rhombopteryx can be accepted as a real, earnest, and, yes, valid name.

Scientific names have also been given to the yeti (Dinanthropoides nivalis), Sasquatch (Gigantopithecus canadensis), and frogs squashed on a highway (Rana magnaocularis). Read about the business of naming species that don't exist at the MIT Press reader.  -via Damn Interesting


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