INFOWEB 9 : Ernst Mayr obituary, key issues to date, petition amateurs-professionals

From Jean H. Huber
Private address: 7 Bd Flandrin, 75116 Paris, France
M.N.H.N., Ichthyology, 43 rue Cuvier, 75231 PARIS Cedex 05.
e-mail : [today inactive]
S.F.I. : Societe Francaise d'Ichtyologie (same address).

Paris, December 11., 2005.

Dear Colleague, dear Aquarist!


Year 2005 is almost ended : symbolically it appears to be a pivotal year !

A year of crossroads, because Ernst Mayr, who has influenced so much biology in the sixties, passed away peacefully at the Methuselah-like age of 100 on February 3, 2005, in Bedford near Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Born on July 5., 1904, in Kempten in southern Germany, Ernst Mayr was the greatest evolutionary biologist of the 20th century.
Like many Germans of his generation he soon had to emigrate to the United States where he spent most of his career.

Although he was an ornithologist, not an ichthyologist, his works and notably his educational books (the first one is the most radical, Systematics and the Origin of Species, published in 1942, the last one, out of a total of 25, was published in August 2004 for his centenary), promoted his reputation of being "Darwin's apostle" or the "Darwin of the 20th century".

Most biologists since Darwin have believed that species are real. The biological species concept proposed by Mayr (and his colleague Theodosius Dobzhansky) is the most prominent and widely accepted one. It defines species as "groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups". Thus, new species arise when reproductive isolation separates formerly interbreeding populations. Obviously the concept has evolved through time to other barriers of isolation, not only reproductive (e.g., for Killifish, in ethology, patterns, geographical disruptions, notably in the palaeontology times, food, specialized niche, produced hormones, etc.).

In addition, Mayr created the concept of sibling species, when 2 species are sympatric and very similar (and more important to the Killifish world, the related concept of cryptic species, when 2 distinct biological species are allopatrically vicariant -i.e., geographical neighbours- and very similar) and helped us believe it was not rare in nature, but quite common : following the pioneering cytological works by Scheel, nobody now questions the issue that there are dozens of different "biological" species in the Chromaphyosemion group for example and that it is a general fact among at least tropical killies (and molecular results confirm at least polymorphic genetics in temperate Killies, too).

As a young student, I personally contacted Ernst Mayr on these issues and was impressed by his curiosity and modesty…

Because of his very long life, he witnessed (and approved -not always immediately, as a standard human being) the various developments of evolutionary biology, and its "pyramidal" consequence, the systematics :

  • compulsory field observations and collections
  • incremental knowledge through published evidence (and not published opinion only)
  • continuous drive for a better understanding without any limit

Like the 2 cult movies, the Tin Drum (die Blechtrommel) and Forrest Gump, which analyse the fundamentals of historical drive of two major countries, Germany and USA, over half a century, Ernst Mayr is the observer of our biological progress and contradictions, gradually from the fifties to present :

  • the dramatic increase in field knowledge and its derived virtue, species conservation,
  • the critical power of better understanding via new discriminate techniques, matrixes of characters and I.T. softwares to "solve" them, detailed morphology, systematic osteology (not descriptive only), molecular biology, systematic behavior,
  • together with the simultaneously increasing complexity in biology (ichthyology), making things more and more difficult to understand, and even "impossible" to understand completely, just like in any science.


With, today, as a direct consequence of these techniques and unlike the sixties, a constant splitting of names : many new taxa created on minor, but "evidenced" characters.

With, today, unlike the sixties and the permanent "economic growth" years, much less "blind" confidence in our ultimate capacity to fully understand biological processes… The more we know, the less we feel to know !

There is no way and no interest to counter these trends -splitting and pragmatic, (hopefully) temporary disillusion !

Because of this increasing difficulty to understand, because of the always higher barriers to scientific entry, because of the unavoidable decline of resources for professionals in terms of manpower and budget, there is no escape from :

  • team working,
  • alliance between amateurs and professionals,
  • cooperation between aquarists and researchers,
  • with renewed rigor and seriousness.


In terms of field knowledge and conservation, the key issues are :

  • share the information (how regrettable is to state that numerous collecting trips by aquarists have never been documented : localities are then lost for future workers),
  • be concerned as citizens of this small planet (how fragile are the situations of some species : even the most organized conservation program, such as for Cyprinodon diabolis lately, may be disrupted by external events, by declining funds and/or by erosion of concern),
  • be responsible with the maintenance of your aquarium fish (how uncertain is the future with new imports of wild stocks : in some countries it is even forbidden to import, and a lost strain may be lost for ever).


In terms of systematic knowledge, the key issues are :

  • build knowledge steadily and incrementally (how pitiful is the situation of some groups which were fashionably studied in the seventies and now are left abandoned : the knowledge has remained unchanged, notably in terms of diagnosis, while at the same time, the requirements have greatly stepped up),
  • routinely and internationally serve the cooperation credo (how unlucky is the researcher who cannot have access to material of a species because he is not aware who precisely owns it or because of national egocentric flags),
  • respect different cultures and citizenship (how unacceptable were the conflicts which occurred between amateur researchers in the seventies, because this conflicts were sterile and opinion-based).


In terms of nomenclature and names, the key issues are :

  • respect the spelling and current status of fish names by always controlling them on online data bases, Catalog of Fishes and Killi-data and KMI (how pitiful is an article with errors, or with a lack of account of new data, or, worse, with the creation of a nomen nudum, because its author did not bother to have a look to more than his books, even recent : by nature a book is obsolete from the day of its publication, while Internet is continuously updated),
  • inform the other researchers of your projects and if they are overlapping with others, then envisage a co-authorship,
  • know the basis of the ICZN code, and if an editor of a Killifish Magazine, its practical details of availability (how awkward is the mention, actually as a new nomen nudum looking like a Latinized name, of a population name written in italics after a generic name, like XXXXys massana).


If we do not collectively behave that way at this crossroad, what will be the outcome ?

  1. less and less numerous professional researchers on Killifish,
  2. importation bans of eggs and fish from other countries (not only wild stocks),
  3. extinction of several species,
  4. worsening of amateurs reputations among professionals not dealing with aquarium fish (most professionals deal with fish with an economic interest because, there, are sourced the budgets),
  5. refusal of material collected without legal permits by all Institutions (only a few practice this at this stage, even for countries which do not require such a permit),
  6. refusal of collecting permits for aquarists in many countries (it is already very difficult in some countries like Mexico, and, aquarists who collected without permits in Brasil ended in jail in 2004),
  7. impossibility by amateur researchers to publish in a scientific magazine because of too tight constraints and cultural barriers to entry
  8. prohibition to publish a new taxon in any aquarium-oriented magazine.

This is not a nightmare. It may once become true, at least in part. Even if we are far from it today.

First, the new code of nomenclature, effective since January 1. 2000, has increased the minimum data for a new name to be available (i.e. officially acceptable) : not only the past requirements of availability are maintained (including a formal diagnosis), but in addition, it is required that a new taxon is claimed as a new species or genus in the title (or more pragmatically in the text itself) by the characteristic words, "new", "n. sp." or "nov. spec." (new species), "nov. gen." (new genus), that specimens (types) are deposited in an Institution, that a type locality is given with them,  in order to be considered by the code.

Second, a petition has been circulating lately among researchers and Institutions, aiming at restricting freedom to maintain … freedom. 

Let's quote it (full details : here… to-day inactive link): 
«The Code still preserves taxonomic freedom and leaves it to systematists to be responsible for stability in grass-root nomenclature. This way we can quickly address and solve problems. Zoological Nomenclature is a functioning system with a considerable flexibility. We want to keep it like that. Systematists, aquarists, biologists in general, public administration including legislators, and in the end the whole global society, benefit from a reliable systematics/taxonomy and a stable nomenclature for all animals.
Recently, there were several instances of abuse of this freedom in North American and European aquarium press. Certain individuals, some apparently without systematic training, published putatively new taxa that were incompetently described in our view and apparently in at least one case, based on illegally collected and exported specimens.
We suggest that aquarists attempting to publish systematic papers without the proper training in systematics and taxonomy are doing themselves, the scientific community, and the aquarium hobby a disservice and that systematic science usually suffers from this activity.
The fact that those activities sometimes are linked to gray or illegal collecting is a serious problem when type material is deposited in North American or European museums instead of in the country of origin. Global museums are supposed to be resources for biodiversity research, and not facilitators of illegal trade in animals. This document is signed by specialists in fish systematics, aquarium journal editors or owners, and museum curators. We hereby express concerted joint concern that individuals are using aquarium hobby journals for nomenclatural statements and descriptions of new taxa which are counter to an accepted code of ethics in science and nomenclature. These activities are counter to the intentions of the Code, and misrepresent systematics in the eyes of the public. We are also concerned that illegal collecting activities amongst aquarists, and use of aquarium fishes for descriptions of supposedly new species, may elicit reactions from nations claiming legitimate complete control over their biological resources. Their response may result in restrictions on Biodiversity research by the global scientific community.
We advise museum curators to observe care in the documentation of acquired donations as a means of controlling illegal collecting. However, we must also emphasize the necessity of having national and international legislation and procedures that facilitate rather than obstruct scientifically justified local and trans-national collecting and study of biodiversity. Opportunities for legal biodiversity studies will counteract the development of illegal collecting activities. Scientific communication should not be published in aquarium literature which is difficult to obtain, and which is sometimes in a local language difficult to understand for the majority of interested researchers. Statements affecting nomenclature sometimes are published unintentionally in any text mentioning names, synonyms or types. With the wealth of aquarium literature now available, such statements are a potential source of nomenclatural problems because they may be discovered only after a long time and then upset established usage. With a disclaimer, as recommended below, only the unintentional nomenclatural problems are eliminated. All other information in the publication is still available for use by systematists or others, as they find suitable. Nothing is lost, but problems are prevented.
We recommend that publishers and editors of aquarium literature, and curators and collection managers of ichthyological collections do all they can to assure that publications of new species are of accepted international standards. This can be done in a constructive way that neither obstructs the creativity of persons involved nor reduces the information flow.

* The Aquarium Hobby Sector is advised to:
(1) never accept manuscripts describing new taxa, but to refer such texts to scientific journals ;
(2) use as standard in all issues or at least whenever contents of a manuscripts cannot be thoroughly reviewed, the option to add in the impressum or elsewhere in the publication a disclaimer like : "This publication is disclaimed for purposes of Zoological Nomenclature in accordance with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Fourth Edition, Articles 8.3 and 8.4. No new names or nomenclatural changes are available from statements in this article/publication";
(3) maintain contacts with active systematic ichthyologists for advice and information in nomenclatural issues. 

* The Museum Sector is advised to:
(1) always decline registration of material which has been collected in violation of the laws of the country of origin;
(2) never accept type material deposited by persons known to publish inferior would-be systematic work in non-scientific journals; 
(3) stay informed about laws and regulations for scientific activity in foreign countries; forward such information to collectors, and never write recommendation letters to external collectors;
(4) refuse access to collections to persons who lack the proper training in systematic research, or who obviously will abuse the privilege;
(5) establish exchange programs or cooperation agreements with museums in countries of interest for collecting and research. 

* Scientists are advised to:
(1) be open to communication with the aquarium sector as with any other public sector and particular individuals; e.g., by providing access to publications and explaining technical issues, or writing popular review reports directly for magazines that respect science and nomenclature;
(2) refrain from sending original work containing nomenclatural statements or new taxa to hobby magazines or gray journals;
(3) encourage systematics students to pay more attention to Zoological Nomenclature and to publish only in refereed scientific journals;
(4) maintain and expand on international communication by attending ichthyology meetings, supporting national and international ichthyology organizations, to increase co-authorship between ichthyologists in the northern and southern hemispheres, and inform the ichthyological community of their ongoing research by web pages or directories such as the Newsletter of Systematic Ichthyology;
(5) refuse citation in scientific publication of articles by would-be systematists, to avoid encouraging such activities.»




I believe these proposals are going too far, even if they have been signed by some renown, respectable and reasonable scientists, and even if none of them belongs to the more cooperative Killifish world !
Better "freedom" may not be achieved by increasing barriers to entry.
As we say in French «l'enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions» (evil is paved with good wills)… hence a more equilibrated position should be aimed for.

What could be the next official step in Nomenclature ?
The next step is sketched in the last edition of the ICZN Code (International Code of Zoological Nomenclature) as a possible new constraint : to require for any new name to be submitted to the Commission (or a linked body) to ensure that all provisions of availability are met.

If we want that both amateur and professional researchers keep on working on new Killifish without much constraints and barriers to entry, and sure, we want that, then authors and publishers, whoever they are, have to conform more precisely to the Code (by knowing it, first) and have to avoid by all means errors, such typos, and premature names (nomina nuda)… or we'll have to prepare ourselves to comply with such a new administrative body.

In this context, may killifish associations editors and petfish publishers be suggested to fully respect the following "rules":

  1. before any publication, check the correct spelling of names in the online Catalog or Killi-Data online (or KMI, if it is one day continuously updated on the Internet), and not in books, even brand new, because an online typo is easily and quickly corrected there, whereas for a book one has to wait for the next hypothetical edition;
  2. before any publication of a new name, check that the paper fully complies with the ICZN Code and ethics (including a summary, at least in English ; name labelled as new, with a description and a diagnosis, with types in Museums, with a type locality ; paper not conflicting with another researcher, etc.) and if not, simply reject it;
  3. before any publication of a name in italics and/or between inverted commas, not mentioned in the online data bases, check that it is not a fancy name, a population name without a first block letter, or alike and then do not print it in italics, and check that it cannot be interpreted as a Latinized name and if so simply reject it, whatever is the reason given by the author, and check, if not Latin-like or if not with a Latin ending, that it cannot be interpreted from the text as a species name.
  4. when these conditions are met and a new name is to be formally erected, before any publication, create a board of reviewers and let the manuscript be revised by at least 2 renown experts who will have to verify that the minimum ICZN requirements are really fulfilled, and after publication, make sure that a copy is freely sent to the Catalog of Fishes, to the Zoological record, and, by courtesy, to any researcher who ask for.

If we want that both aquarists and researchers keep on working together, and sure, we want that, then we have to transform good willing and philosophies (of cooperation, of respect, of conservation… ) into reality and action.


This newsletter has a flavour of responsibility, not of threats. We are at crossroads ! Think of it, and act accordingly !
May I wish the Killifish community an excellent New Year with many new discoveries and results… evidence-based, of course !


In total a very important newsletter ! Hopefully a boost to our community and a spur to speed up knowledge progress on our (beloved) fishes  !


Take care and enjoy the scientific or aquaristic complexity of killifish !

Do not hesitate to ask questions for future Newsletters.

Visit frequently the website !

Thank you for your support over the years.

With my kindest regards.


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