Tetrapod Zoology

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Despite efforts, there just hasn’t been enough time (yet) to get Tet Zoo to properly reflect the balance of diversity within Tetrapoda (I blame the charismatic megafauna). And among the many groups that have been totally under-represented here are the snakes: one of the most speciose (over 2700 species) and abundant tetrapod clades. It’ll take a long time before snakes are fairly represented at Tet Zoo, and what I’d like to do here is talk briefly (relatively speaking) about a very obscure and poorly known group of really weird little burrowing snakes, the scolecophidians. The… what?

Three scolecophidian ‘families’ are currently recognised: the typhlopids, known variously as blind snakes or blindsnakes (they inhabit the American, African, Asian and Australasian tropics), the leptotyphlopids, also called threadsnakes, wormsnakes or slender blindsnakes (of tropical America, Africa, and south-west Asia), and the American anomalepidids (or anomalepids), sometimes called early blindsnakes. These are hugely successful snakes found throughout the tropics of the world and consisting of about 400 species. Yet they’re all but unknown outside the herpetological community, and are often mentioned only in passing, or are ignored entirely: as Samuel McDowell (1967) said ‘It is fairly obvious from most of the literature, both popular and technical, that the blind snakes are usually forgotten in defining and characterizing the Ophidia. The exhibition galleries of large museums sometimes omit them entirely, to leave more space for king cobras, puff-adders and rattlesnakes’ (p. 691). Let’s see if we can change that. These are really freakily bizarre little animals, displaying some incredibly neat anatomical details, and with the capacity to shed a lot of light on the key innovations that paved the way for the snake radiation.

i-d15fc1fed595e8bdb203ed69b3fe8e15-Typhlops vermicularis from wikipedia.jpg

Phylogenetic studies generally agree that scolecophidians are the sister-taxon to all other crown-group snakes, a clade called Alethinophidia (see Lee & Scanlon 2002 for review). Alethinophidia consists of the pipe snakes and kin, or anilioids [a group that may or may not be natural: see Gower et al. 2005], and the macrostomatans, which are all the others. Located as they are right down at the base of crown-group Serpentes, scolecophidians are obviously important in terms of hypotheses on early snake evolution. Is their small size, specialisation for fossoriality and insectivorous diet primitive for snakes, or are they degenerate forms, only deceptively ‘primitive’ due to the loss or modification of features present in earlier snakes? I won’t really be looking at those issues here but must do so at another time [image above shows Typhlops vermicularis].

All scolecophidians look superficially alike: they’re smooth-scaled, cylindrical, slender snakes (sometimes incredibly slender), with (usually) blunted heads, ventrally placed mouths, reduced eyes, and short tails that often end in a spike. The scales of typhlopids at least are thick and strongly overlapping, and in some species the scales glow under UV light (I don’t think anyone knows why); furthermore, the scales are so thick that shed skins are said to be rubbery in texture (Kley 2003). These thick scales defend the snakes from aggressive insects, but one North American leptotyphlopid has been shown to repel insects chemically: the snake smears itself in cloacal sac secretions that ants avoid (Gehlback et al. 1968). In leptotyphlopids, the pelvis is complete, and a small femur is present. All scolecophidians are small: the record holder reaches 100 cm (the typhlopid Rhinotyphlops schlegelii, or Schlegel’s blindsnake), but few exceed 60 cm, and most are less than 30 cm long. Scolecophidians never bite people but have been reported to emit faint squeaking sounds (Kley 2003).

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Scolecophidian heads are very unusual. Though most species are blunt-snouted, some have sharply pointed snouts and many have unusual hooked snouts [montage at top of article shows a few Indian typhlopid species (from Khan 1999); adjacent image shows typhlopid head and tail]. Flattened, sloping snouts and even tri-lobed snouts are also present. Tactile organs are present on the head and are visible as small specks on the head scales and, most bizarrely, some typhlopid species (most notably the incredibly elusive Madagascan Xenotyphlops species) have flexible papillae growing from the scales at the snout tip. Nearly all scolecophidians appear to be dedicated arthropod predators, mostly eating the larvae and pupae of ants and termites. However, at least some species eat moderately large prey: Webb et al. (2000) documented predation on large earthworms by the Melanesian typhlopid Acutotyphlops subocularis. Despite the reliance of most species on very small prey (this applies even to the ‘giant’ Schlegel’s blindsnake), scolecophidians still indulge in what Webb et al. (2001) called binge-feeding: they rapidly ingest a large meal and do so infrequently. If fossoriality and insectivory are primitive for snakes, binge-feeding in scolecophidians might show that infrequent feeding in snakes did not evolve in concert with the ingestion of large prey (as has been thought by some). But if the fossoriality and insectivory of scolecophidians are highly derived specialisations relative to the primitive snake condition, binge-feeding might be retained from ancestors that ate larger-bodied prey.

Of the 395 or so scolecophidian species, about 265 are typhlopids. Until very recently, the many species in this group were classified in just three genera: Typhlops Oppell, 1811, Ramphotyphlops Fitzinger, 1843 and Rhinotyphlops Fitzinger, 1843. However, Typhlops has now been fragmented into multiple new or resurrected genera: Acutotyphlops Wallach, 1995, Austrotyphlops Wallach, 2006, Cyclotyphlops Bosch & Ineich, 1994, Grypotyphlops Peters, 1881, Letheobia Cope, 1869 and Xenotyphlops Wallach & Ineich, 1996 [Xenotyphlops shown in image below]. Ramphotyphlops, Acutotyphlops and Austrotyphlops differ from other scolecophidians (and other squamates) in that their hemipenes are solid: when folded away, these organs are coiled up like corkscrews. A pair of cloacal sacs – the retrocloacal sacs – are also present in these snakes, the function of which remains unknown (they were suggested to function in sperm storage but Shea (2001) showed that this was not the case). It has been suggested that the only Cyclotyphlops species, C. deharvengi from Indonesia, might share these details as it’s quite similar to Ramphotyphlops (Wallach et al. 2007), but this remains unknown because the only specimen we have is a female.

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Prior to 2007, Acutotyphlops (containing four species) was thought endemic to eastern New Guinea, Alotau, the Bismarck Archipelago, Bougainvile and the Solomon Islands, but a fifth species, A. banaorum, then extended the range of the genus to the Philippines, and to the far northern Philippines at that. This gives Acutotyphlops a bizarrely disjunct distribution, as A. banaorum is separated from the others by about 4000 km (Wallach et al. 2007). A similar distribution is shared by the Platymantis frogs, and it might be that over-water dispersal has allowed snakes and frogs to move between these areas (recall that over-water dispersal is now thought to have occurred regularly among anurans, and that over-water dispersal in general has probably occurred far, far more regularly than was generally thought until recently). It is also possible, noted Wallach et al. (2007), that Acutotyphlops species previously occurred right across the intervening 4000 km, but that the species concerned have become extinct. On the other hand, they might still be around but just have yet to be discovered.

Typhlopid skulls are tiny – literally just a few millimetres long in cases – and for this reason it’s been very difficult to study them. If these snakes are specialists on ant and termite larvae and pupae, how do they procure, process and swallow their prey? Their skulls and jaws are extremely unusual: the elongate lower jaws are entirely toothless with tiny dentary bones (the dentary is usually the biggest bone in the tetrapod jaw) – this is unique among snakes – and the toothed maxillae are ordinarily kept folded away against the roof of the mouth, their tooth rows directed posteriorly and arranged transversely relative to the skull’s long axis. Ligaments and muscles, rather than bony contacts, hold the maxillae in this position [image below, from Kley (2001), shows the skull of Typhlops lineolatus].

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Leptotyphlopids are just as strange if not more so [skull of Leptotyphlops dulcis shown below, with ventral view of lower jaw in protracted and retracted positions: from Kley 2001]. The upper jaws are entirely toothless, which is unique among snakes (properly prepared skulls of these snakes possess small, ventrally projecting pegs on the maxillae, but they’re not teeth nor do they seem to function as pseudo-teeth), and their maxillae are tightly bound to the rest of the skull and relatively immobile. In several Old World species the skull roof bones are strongly reduced and even absent. The lower jaws are only very loosely connected to the rest of the skull, and are supported by exceptionally long, slender quadrates that articulate with the braincase by way of long, sliding articulations. Each lower jaw is short and robust: in Leptotyphlops dulcis there are just four or five teeth in each dentary, and the unusual shape of the dentary – it is strongly convex on its lateral side – means that the teeth are arranged almost transversely, rather than in a line parallel to the skull’s long axis. A highly mobile intramandibular joint separates the conjoined dentary-splenial unit from the post-dentary bones, the rounded intramandibular facet allowing the anterior half of the jaw to rotate extensively relative to the posterior half. Where the two dentaries meet along the midline, a robust cartilaginous linkage prevents the dentaries from spreading apart, but does allow them to rotate. These descriptions (both of typhlopids and leptotyphlopids) are taken from Kley (2001, 2006), which you should consult for more detail: for free pdfs visit the Kley lab homepage.

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How exactly do these snakes use these bizarre jaws? Until recently nobody knew, with suction-feeding and some sort of tongue-assisted feeding being suggested. New technology has allowed Nathan Kley of Stony Brook University to examine and answer these questions. Leptotyphlopids, with immobile maxillae and flexible lower jaws that have short, laterally convex dentaries, use a bizarre ‘mandibular raking’ method to get prey into the mouth: the anterior part of the lower jaw is rapidly rotated about the intramandibular joint, the transversely oriented teeth grabbing prey and pulling them backwards. Typhlopids, which their super-mobile maxillae that are normally kept folded up against the palate, can actually move each maxilla independently, and when feeding they seem to rapidly rotate the maxillae left-right-left-right in and out of the mouth, grabbing prey items with the teeth and then dragging them backwards. They are therefore practising a unique sort of ‘maxillary raking’ that allows multiple small prey objects to be swiftly pulled into the mouth (Kley & Brainerd 1999, Kley 2001) (the mechanics of feeding remain unstudied in anomalepidids but their typhlopid-like maxillae suggest that they also practise maxillary raking).

Maxillary raking is of course reminiscent of the ‘pterygoid walking’ used by macrostomatan alethinophidians: when ingesting prey, macrostomatans ‘walk’ the prey backwards into the mouth by pulling back on the prey with the toothed maxilla and pterygoid on the left side, then with the maxilla and pterygoid on the right, and so on. This is called unilateral feeding, and a reasonable amount of literature has been devoted to its function and origin. Unlike macrostomatans though, typhlopids do not use their toothless palatal bones in transporting prey, and other details of the feeding styles are also very different from those of macrostomatans. For these reasons, Kley (2001) favoured the idea that unilateral feeding is unique to alethinophidians, and was not present in the snake common ancestor. This contradicts another scenario (Lee et al. 1999) where unilateral feeding was inferred to be primitive for the entire snake clade….

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However, Kley (2006) later argued that various skull details present in leptotyphlopids suggest that these snakes evolved from ancestors that practised either macrophagy (the ingestion of large prey) or unilateral feeding, and the various paedomorphic features present in leptotyphlopids also led him to lean towards the idea that scolecophidians are ‘regressive’ animals that have descended from macrophagous ancestors. This is the ‘classical’ view on these snakes, favoured during the 19th century by Boulenger, Cope and others. I’d love to explain the reasoning behind all this but I’ve run out of time.

Indeed there’s so much more that could be said about these fascinating snakes: about how they live, about the global spread of one parthenogenetic species by way of the horticulture trade, and more about what they might tell us about early snake evolution. And, like the also fossorial amphisbaenians and caecilians, their cryptic lifestyles, confusing morphologies, and poorly known geographic ranges have combined to make them a very exciting area for systematic and phylogenetic work.

Coming soon: big news in a big journal!

Refs – -

Gehlbach, F. R., Watkins, J. F. & Reno, H. 1968. Blind snake defensive behaviour elicited by ant attacks. Bioscience 18, 784-785.

Gower, D. J., Vidal, N., Spinks, J. N. & McCarthy, C. J. 2005. The phylogenetic position of Anomochilidae (Reptilia: Serpentes): first evidence from DNA sequences. Journal of Zoological Systematics 43, 315-320.

Khan, M. S. 1999. Two new species and a subspecies of blind snakes of genus Typhlops from Azad Kashmir and Punjab, Pakistan (Serpentes: Typhlopidae). Russian Journal of Herpetology 6, 231-240.

Kley, N. J. 2001. Prey transport mechanisms in blindsnakes and the evolution of unilateral feeding systems in snakes. American Zoologist 41, 1321-1337.

- . 2003. Blindsnakes (Typhlopidae). In Hutchins, M., Murphy, J. B. & Schlager, N. (eds) Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd edition. Vol. 7. Reptiles, pp. 379-385. Gale Group, Farmington Hills (MI).

- . 2006. Morphology of the lower jaw and suspensorium in the Texas blindsnake, Leptotyphlops dulcis (Scolecophidia: Leptotyphlopidae). Journal of Morphology 267, 494-515.

- . & Brainerd, E. L. 1999. Feeding by mandibular raking in a snake. Nature 402, 369-370.

Lee, M. S. Y., Bell, G. L. & Caldwell, M. W. 1999. The origin of snake feeding. Nature 400, 655-659.

- . & Scanlon, J. D. 2002. Snake phylogeny based on osteology, soft anatomy and ecology. Biological Reviews 77, 333-401.

McDowell, S. B. 1967. Osteology of the Typhlopidae and Leptotyphlopidae: a critical review. Copeia 1967, 686-692.

Shea, G. M. 2001. Spermatogenic cycle, sperm storage, and sertoli cell size in a scolecophidian (Ramphotyphlops nigrescens) from Australia. Journal of Herpetology 35, 85-91.

Wallach, V., Brown, R. M., Diesmos, A. C. & Gee, G. V. A. 2007. An enigmatic new species of blind snake from Luzon Island, northern Philippines, with a synopsis of the genus Acutotyphlops (Serpentes: Typhlopidae). Journal of Herpetology 41, 690-702.

- ., Mercurio, V. & Andreone, F. 2007. Rediscovery of the enigmatic blind snake genus Xenotyphlops in northern Madagascar, with description of a new species (Serpentes: Typhlopidae). Zootaxa 1402, 59-68.

Webb, J. K., Branch, W. R. & Shine, R. 2001. Dietary habits and reproductive biology of typhlopid snakes from southern Africa. Journal of Herpetology 35, 558-567.

- ., Shine, R., Branch, W. R. & Harlow, P. S. 2000. Life-history strategies in basal snakes: reproduction and dietary habits of the African thread snake Leptotyphlops scutifrons (Serpentes: Leptotyphlopidae). Journal of Zoology 250, 321-327

Comments

  1. #1 Tengu
    May 16, 2008

    That was very good, I had heard of them but no further info.

  2. #2 Jerzy
    May 16, 2008

    Thanks!

    I just dream, how many more fascinating things about blind snakes is undiscovered…

  3. #3 Nemo Ramjet
    May 16, 2008

    The drawing of Thyplops is from Ibrahim Baran, a Turkish herpetologist. Do you have his “Reptiles and Amphibians of Turkey” series?

  4. #4 Hai~Ren
    May 16, 2008

    Neat!

    When I was still a teenager, I was able to find Ramphotyphlops braminus on the pavement on 2 separate occasions. This one of the most widespread snake species, probably having been introduced to many parts of the world through movement of plants and soil. It’s also parthenogenetic.

  5. #5 Emile
    May 17, 2008

    The snake I see most often is Typhlops vermicularis. Almost every ant nest seems to have one, so by going around turning rocks over, one can find a lot of worm snakes. They’re quite cuddly too.

  6. #6 John Scanlon, FCD
    May 18, 2008

    Great stuff, Darren. Nate Kley has really done some good work on the biomechanics of these little weirdos, and Van Wallach is getting the taxonomy sorted out. It’s a pity they make such useless fossils, at least so far (the skull of a basal scolecophidian would be a neat thing to find, and could solve the origin-of-unilateral-feeding question). My 7 yo daughter recently caught her first snake, in our back yard; R. braminus.

  7. #7 Zach Miller
    May 19, 2008

    Looks to me like these snakes, amphisbaenians, and caecilians all converged on a unique lifestyle. Would that be fair to say, or are they doing completely different things (I should go back and re-read the other entries)?

  8. #8 Steve Bodio
    May 21, 2008

    Anybody know if Leptotyphlops bakewelli is still a valid species? If so i have a tale…

  9. #9 Darren Naish
    May 22, 2008

    Hi Steve. Bakewell’s blindsnake (first described from Mexico in 1937) is usually regarded today as a subspecies of Leptotyphlops goudotii, but I’ve seen one paper that regards it as synonoymous with L. g. phenops (Kluge 1984). What’s your tale anyway? I recall you mentioning Father Anderson Bakewell on Querencia.

    Ref – -

    Kluge, A. G. 1984. Type-specimens of reptiles in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Miscellaneous Papers of the Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan 167, 1-85.

  10. #10 Steve Bodio
    May 23, 2008

    You have it exactly! Before he was a Jesuit he was among other things (climber, big game hunter) a collector for Marlin Perkins at the St. Louis Zoo. He collected it first– spent a lot of time in Latin America. I believe a few other snakes are named after him too, but I don’t know the genera.

  11. #11 Richard Wells
    January 24, 2009

    Hi Darren,

    Your otherwise fine article includes an unfortunate mistake. In 2006, Van Wallach described Austrotyphlops as a new genus for the Australian Scolecophidians. This has resulted in no small amount of concern, for this act apparently ignored the earlier described genera Libertadictus and Sivadictus of Wells and Wellington (1984) which were specifically erected for the Australian species. Van Wallach could not possibly have been unaware of these earlier valid names, in particular given his close working relationship with Dr Glen Shea of Sydney University. As priority is one of the few fundamentally objective bases of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, acts of nomenclature that ignore priority – such as the erection of Austrotyphlops – must lead to taxonomic and nomenclatural instability – which, if we are to believe the Commissioners of the ICZN, is contrary to their oft-stated aim of seeking stability in the classification of life. The puzzle that immediately comes to mind now is simply one of how could this act have occurred given Wallach’s otherwise excellent credentials in ophidian systematics. Is Van Wallach just incompetant when it comes to the literature (which he obviously would not be), or has he practiced scientific fraud in his erection of Austrotyphlops? I see no valid taxonomic or nomenclatural reason why either of the prior names of Libertadictus or Sivadictus could not have been used in lieu of the erection of Austrotyphlops for the Australian Scolecophidians. Correspondence to Van Wallach has been apparently ignored, repeated phone messages over this matter to his colleague in Scolecophidian systematics Glen Shea go unanswered. I’ll be publishing further research on the Australian Scolecophidians soon, and of course will be promptly synonymising Austrotyphlops where its previous use has been contrary to taxonomic priority and the stability of nomenclature.

    Richard Wells

  12. #12 John Scanlon FCD
    January 28, 2009

    Amomalepidid skulls have just made it to DigiMorph, in conjunction with a paper by Rieppel, Kley & Maisano in press (on ‘Early View’) in Journal of Morphology. See
    http://www.digimorph.org/specimens/Liotyphlops_albirostris/

    I thought Wallach had stated a reason for not recognising the Wells and Wellington genera (probably in an earlier work), but can’t presently recall what it was and don’t have the 2006 paper. It’s not a journal I’ve previously had much cause to look at:
    Wallach, V. 2006. The nomenclatural status of Australian Ramphotyphlops (Serpentes: Typhlopidae). Bull. Maryland Herp. Soc 42 (1): 8-24.

    Nobody else, as far as I’m aware, has used those particular W & W names, but they are indeed ‘out there’, and ‘you can’t take them back’ (as Sally would have said to Harry). The ICZN does not have a category of nomina oblienda.

  13. #13 John Scanlon FCD
    January 30, 2009

    Got the paper now. There is certainly no question of Wallach (2006) being ignorant of the literature, or having ‘practiced scientific fraud’. He tabulates the included species vs. the ‘diagnostic’ characters for each genus from Wells and Wellington (1984, 1985), and argues (p. 10) that

    none of the characters proposed by Wells and Wellington (1984) for their genus Libertadictus define the expanded group of Wells and Wellington (1985)… It is clear that the genus Libertadictus is insufficiently diagnosed and should therefore be considered a nomen dubium.

    and (p.11)

    Again, the definition of Sivadictus does not define the group of included taxa. Only two species fall within the definition of Wells and Wellington (R. micromma and R. wiedii) and neither are the type species!

    As I said last comment, the ICZN does not have a formal category of nomina oblienda (‘names that ought to be forgotten’), and in fact the current Code (4th Ed. 1999) contains very little on the subject of nomina dubia, defined in the Glossary as

    nomen dubium (pl. nomina dubia), n.
    A Latin term meaning “a name of unknown or doubtful application”.

    It’s clear from the Code that a nomen dubium is not an available name, but whether a proposed nomen is dubium is apparently (as far as I can tell) a subjective, taxonomic decision for subsequent revisers rather than following automatically from the original publication and the Code (which proclaims its intent to govern purely nomenclatural issues rather than taxonomy).

    The fact that NOBODY has used the W&W typhlopid names as valid (either before or after the Commission’s Opinion in 1991) also supports Wallach’s view that they are of “unknown or doubtful application”, as he notes in a paragraph spread over pp. 11-13.

    In these circumstances, Wallach or any other reviser could have opted to validate one or both names by giving them new diagnoses or content (other than the originally designated type species). Normally, most taxonomists would do that. Even on the basis that the practice of Australian herpetological taxonomy (except for two brave souls) has been a vast malign conspiracy extending over the past 150 years, even Richard frickin’ Wells could have published a note somewhere clarifying the content and/or diagnosis of the genera in such a way as to remove the vagueness and doubt. But he hasn’t (W&W 1985 only further muddied the waters), so I don’t think it especially behove anyone else to do so.

    So if anyone has a problem with Austrotyphlops, they should petition to have it suppressed. And as we know, that hardly ever works.

  14. #14 Richard Wells
    January 30, 2009

    John,

    Wallach should get a copy of the Code and actually read it in context of its original intent, subsequent application and accurate use. So he THINKS that the Wells and Wellington names were not defined in the manner he wished and were supposedly “insufficiently described”. Sorry, John. No grounds there for nomen oblitum, nomen nudum, or nomen dubium but possibly Wallach’s actions make a great case for actorum stupidum. Get this straight mate – Austrotyphlops is going into a black hole of synonymy as far as my next paper is concerned. Wallach – or anyone else – who tries to hide behind the lame excuse of nomen dubium for such an act as practiced, leave themselves wide open for justifiable concerns as to the ethical basis of their actions. I believe that Wallach by his statements has chosen to manipulate the Code to justify actions that can be interpreted as little more than an act of intellectual theft. On the point that Wallach’s actions are somehow justified because no one else has used the genera Sivadictus or Libertadictus since their original description 20 odd years ago – or that I have not bothered to clarify the diagnoses of the genera – well, that is not only irrelevant, it is also inaccurate. So someone should petition the ICZN for a ruling on the matter eh…Well John, that might very well happen – and failure may not be as much a foregone conclusion as you imply. I need only raise the ICZN Case in regards to our earlier description of the species Varanus keithhornei being granted priority over Sprackland’s attempted theft of the species through his later description of Varanus teriae. And there will be others, make no mistake about that. But it does raise another interesting related matter…the other justification for intellectual theft – the so called “Common Usage” argument – where the availability of a junior synonym may overide a senior name as a consequence of X number of Authors, using Y number of Publications, over Z number of Years. All well and good for the sake of the God Stability you may say…But how hideously dishonest is that practice when that particular provision of the Code has been abused by the illegitimate suppression of the senior name through unethical Editorial practices. You know full-well John that Wells and Wellington names have been suppressed from publication in a number of Journals in Australia and elsewhere for years – and I have copies of correspondence from Editors and statements from many authors who have complained to me that they could not use Wells and Wellington taxonomy and nomenclature in their papers, for if they did so, their works would not be accepted for publication – for example -the Australian Journal of Zoology, the Victorian Naturalist, the Australian Zoologist, the Northern Territory Naturalist, Wildlife Research, the Records of the Australian Museum and there are others. Similarly, university students who became convinced of the validity of Wells and Wellington taxonomy and nomenclature were actively pressured into not using the works if they really wanted a Degree ! Although the Wells and Wellington papers were not formally suppressed in 1991, the conspiracy continued with Editorial and Referee interference to expunge any mention of the Wells and Wellington papers (a defacto suppression) – the works were simply sighted but not cited – so that their intellectual gems could be simply harvested without acknowledgement to Wells and Wellington. It is only relatively recently, that the suppressionist’s grip has been deminishing due largely to senescence and senility I think, and a new crop of more objective herpetologists is now starting to finally use the Wells and Wellington names. Wallach simply has no defense for ignoring our earlier work because of so-called non-usage, given the extent of the suppressionists effect on usage in the literature. Wallach’s belief that the rejection of validly published names can be justified because they are of “unknown or doubtful application” leaves me almost speechless with disbelief. At best, this act could demonstrate an appalling lack of understanding of the historical zoological literature in systematics, classification, taxonomy and nomenclature, or at worst, reveals an equally appalling level of intellectual dishonesty in a matter of classification.
    Finally, you mention and quote from the 4th Edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature in regards to Wallach’s actions. Interesting, but again, not all that relevant. I should just point out that the most recent version of the Code is the Fourth Edition that was published in September 1999 but it actually did not take effect until January 1st 2000. This Edition is not the arbiter of matters of Nomenclature emanating from a publication that appeared in 1984 !
    I contend that Sivadictus and Libertadictus are in fact Available Names under the Code [including Art.13(a)] and there are numerous examples of precedence that could be raised in zoology to support this contention. I am also sorry to inform you and others that may not be aware of a little fact in regards the Code and the Wells and Wellington papers. The 3rd Edition of the Code was not actually operational until 1986 – years AFTER the description of Sivadictus and Libertadictus were published. In fact, all the so-called “contentious” Wells and Wellington articles – the “Synopsis of the Class Reptilia in Australia” (Aust. J. Herp., 1 (3-4), the “Classification of the Amphibia and Reptilia of Australia” and the “Amphibia and Reptilia of New Zealand” (Aust. J. Herp., Supplementary Series No 1) were all actually published during the time when the 2nd Edition of the Code was in force in contradiction to a number of authors’ subsequently published statements.

    Best Regards,

    Richard Wells

  15. #15 David Marjanović
    January 30, 2009

    In these circumstances, Wallach or any other reviser could have opted to validate one or both names by giving them new diagnoses or content (other than the originally designated type species). Normally, most taxonomists would do that.

    Because they have to.

    When the diagnosis is wrong, nothing whatsoever happens to the name. Instead, you simply emend the diagnosis, and AFAIK that doesn’t even count as a nomenclatural act.

    When the type specimen is not diagnostic — that is, diagnosable, completely regardless of the original diagnosis –, then the name becomes a nomen dubium. Nomina dubia are by no means unavailable; the term just means that nothing except the type specimen can be unambiguously assigned to them.

    Even though the ICZN itself confuses the terms, the diagnosis is not part of the definition of a name. Definitions consist only of type and rank.

    So, if the type specimens of the type species of Libertadictus and Sivadictus are not diagnostic, and if the type species of Australotyphlops has a different type specimen, Australotyphlops stays (and so do the other two, though only as historical footnotes, basically). If not, it becomes a junior objective synonym of one of the others (not both, of course).

    I believe that Wallach by his statements has chosen to manipulate the Code to justify actions that can be interpreted as little more than an act of intellectual theft.

    Bah. Based on the above, I conclude he simply thought diagnoses had to be correct, and acted accordingly. Why do you assume malice when ignorance would suffice?

    On the point that Wallach’s actions are somehow justified because no one else has used the genera Sivadictus or Libertadictus since their original description 20 odd years ago

    The cutoff point for nomina oblita is 50 years.

    This Edition is not the arbiter of matters of Nomenclature emanating from a publication that appeared in 1984 !

    Is that so? There are, after all, articles in it that apply to (for example) “names published before 1931″ and “names published after 1930″. Electronic publication is explicitly only allowed for “names published after 1999″; it’s not taken for granted that the older editions still apply to names published before 2000.

    Yes, read the Code, everyone. Read it. Read this excruciatingly legalistic, grotesquely bloated, repetitive… no… spiral document that contains at least one contradiction*. Read it, and you’ll spare the world lots of trouble.

    * On whether the abominable species names that end in -i but were explicitly meant to honor something else than one male must or must not be emended.

  16. #16 John Scanlon FCD
    February 2, 2009

    Interesting how Richard frames the situation in terms of an “act of intellectual theft”. It’s always personal, even or especially when it’s about the ICZN.

    Putting a name on something does not mean you own it. Wholesale suppression of the W&W works for nomenclatural purposes would not have taken anything from the authors, because the taxonomic concepts they proposed, and any other biologically relevant information contained in them, would still be ‘out there’ and worth just as much. I think they might well have been cited and respected more, not less, if that had happened. I know there have been different views on this: back in the day, I signed the ASH petition to suppress but strongly disagreed with others who – not being taxonomists – did so for different reasons.

    It’s quite true, as Richard has pointed out, that some of those people, acting as editors and referees, made it difficult or impossible, over many years, for people actually doing and publishing descriptive taxonomic work to use W&W names, especially in Australian journals. I met flat refusal to publish a description of Demansia flagellatio by that name in Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, and inordinate delays in review of a ms diagnosing Cacophis churchilli in Australian Journal of Zoology (both since published elsewhere). The number of ethically repugnant acts involved in this editorial policy may or may not surpass the number of unhelpful, scientifically worthless or non-explained nomenclatural acts in Wells and Wellington (1984, 1985a,b), but science and conservation (and frankly, careers) have suffered from both sides so they in no way cancel or justify each other.

    So it’s personal for me too. When Richard Wells was president of the Australian Herpetological Society (amateur group I joined when I was 14 in 1978, meeting at the Australian Museum, Sydney), and when I worked with him in the field in 1980 and occasionally over the next few years, I looked up to him with respect for what he did well, as did everyone as far as I was aware. In December 1980 I freely told him about the work I’d been doing on the AM collection splitting up the ‘collared whipsnakes’ (first typescript 1981, first version submitted to an international journal in 1983 or -4). When the W&W 1984 ‘synopsis’ came out, it was exciting but also very disappointing – like a whole volume of papers by Glenn Storr at once, only with less biological detail (and what there was of it, unreliable). The 1985 ‘supplement’ was not only more of the same, but included the naming of Demansia flagellatio, and that was an act of intellectual theft by someone I had looked up to but would never trust again. I’m not sure how many other young would-be-professional biologists who happened to work on species problems in herpetology were ripped off like me, but I think the answer is probably: all of them.

    If it’s possible to read the Code in a way that winds back some of the acts like that, so we can pretend they never happened, I’m all for it. But David’s usually correct, so maybe it’s not in cases like Libertadictus, as well as cases like D. flagellatio. Pretty soon I’ll be publishing on fossil typhlopids; I might not, after all, be able to refer them to a genus.

    And damn it, I missed the opportunity to fix “Cacophis churchilli”, which should have been “churchillae!

  17. #17 Richard Wells
    February 6, 2009

    Message deleted.

    From Darren: to all interested, Richard Wells left a lengthy comment here in which he defended his own actions, and responded to John Scanlon’s previous comments. Because Richard’s message contained a fairly heavy personal attack on John and his actions I have removed it, and have explained my actions to Richard. Should anyone wish to see the comment in full please do email me [eotyrannus at gmail dot com]. I will be happy to accept comments from Richard, or anyone else, but personal attacks will not be tolerated on the site.

  18. #18 David Marjanović
    May 2, 2009

    Wow. That sounds worse than Aëtogate.

  19. #19 Amber
    October 9, 2010

    Wow, this is amazing. These look less like snakes and more like worms – if I had seen pictures outside of the scientific community, I would have assumed they were photoshopped!

    This would be awesome to see in the wild, if unlikely.

  20. #20 Graeme Wells
    February 24, 2011

    Darren,
    I used to work with Grahame Webb and Harry Messel on the northern crocodile programme. I am in the process of unravelling a major scientific fraud. I have known Richard Wells (no relation) since we both attended the same High School in the 1960′s – and I sometimes met him and Grahame Gow in Darwin etc. Recently Richard Wells has attempted to derail a NSW Police Case – can you believe it. I am interested in a copy of his email regarding John Scanlon. He has only had a go at me in a couple of personal emails. I was quite devastated. I’m only attempting to expose the truth.
    Regards
    Graeme Wells

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