Goodbye Bulo Burti boubou (sort of)


Here we are, at the beginning of 2009. And here's where I get that horrible feeling that - on the 'things to do for 2008' list - so many things remain incomplete. Among these are a number of Tet Zoo posts that were cutting-edge and topical when I started them, yet are now not so cutting-edge, and not so topical. Whatever: here's a brief article I'd planned to publish months ago. It concerns the Bulo Burti boubou Laniarius liberatus, a bush-shrike described in 1991 on the basis of a single individual captured in central Somalia (Smith et al. 1991) [adjacent photo © E. F. G. Smith]. Bush-shrikes, or malaconotids, are an entirely African group of passerine birds. Unlike the more predatory shrikes (with which bush-shrikes were conventionally allied: they seem instead to be closer to vangas, ioras, helmet-shrikes and so on), bush-shrikes glean under-storey foliage, superficially recalling gigantic warblers.

During the early 1990s, the Bulo Burti boubou appeared in headlines all around the world. Whereas the type specimens of new species are usually dispatched and placed in museum collections, the Bulo Burti boubou was the first avian species in which the type specimen was released, alive. Edmund Smith (the lead author on the 1991 description) had initially (in 1988) seen this bird - that is, the one individual that became the type specimen - in the grounds of a hospital in Bulo Burti. Unable to identify it, he was lucky enough to see it 'on most of the weekly visits to the hospital grounds' (Smith et al. 1991, p. 227). Faced with the possibility that here was a new species, known only from a single, live specimen, he consulted with others and decided to capture the bird, and to release it after collecting as much data as possible. This plan was beset by a few problems* but was ultimately successful: the bird was captured in 1989 and released in March 1990.

* A deep-frozen fresh blood sample was lost in the post, meaning that traces of dried blood had to be relied upon for DNA analysis. And civil unrest in Somalia meant that the bird and its carer (Jan-Uwe Heckel) had to leave the country. Heckel looked after the bird in Germany before returning it to Somalia in 1990. The Bulo Burti area remained unsafe, and was also, by now, devoid of suitable habitat, so the bird was eventually released in a different place, the Balcad Nature Reserve [diagrammatic pic of Bulo Burti boubou below from wikipedia].


Smith et al. (1991) argued that 'in the case of a taxon suspected to be threatened with extinction, our approach makes diagnosis possible without collection' (p. 227). In recognition of the type specimen's release, the species name liberatus was 'chosen to emphasize that the bird is described on the basis of a freed individual' (Smith et al. 1991, p. 228). Here we come to an area of much argument. I personally don't like seeing animals dispatched or 'collected' in the name of science: if, like me, you're sentimental and (try to be) ethical, you may find your personal feelings getting in the way of things when you're out in the field and someone wants to kill an animal 'for science'. Furthermore, 'collecting' is often completely unnecessary and so very much at odds with the 'leave nothing but footprints' mantra some of us would like to live by in these times of 'eco-footprint' awareness. In the case of the Bulo Burti boubou, its possible status as highly endangered contributed to the decision that it might be wrong to kill it (see Collar 1999). The same argument arose after the holotype of the endangered Tanzanian shrew Crocidura desperata Hutterer et al., 1991 was 'collected'.


However... there are - in reality - usually enough animals for scientific collection to make no difference whatsoever (Patterson 2002). And, leaving personal feelings aside, most zoologists who have gone on record have argued that the collection of type specimens really is essential (and note that my sentimental objections above refer more to just 'general collecting' rather than to the specific procuring of TYPE individuals). Releasing such individuals (or failing to collect them) creates problems given that we lose - and/or lack - essential information, and lack the chance to go back and check the relevant specimens again (Banks et al. 1993, Bates et al. 2004, and see comments here). We looked at this debate back in 2006, when the Kipunji Rungwecebus kipunji was named (go here on ver 1. Pic of live kipunji shown here). The holotype was a live animal, photographed in the field (however, specimens were obtained later on). Type specimens were also not collected for the Blond capuchin Cebus quierozi Mendes Pontes & Malta, 2006 and Arunachal macaque Macaca munzala Sinha et al., 2005 (is it a coincidence that these are all primates?). As Collar (1999) pointed out, this is not necessarily a totally new thing however: during the 1800s, both P. L. Sclater and Walter Rothschild described new taxa on the basis of live, captive birds, and Delacour and Jabouille's 1931 description of the Imperial pheasant Lophura imperialis was based on live specimens.

The scientist in me concludes that the collection of actual, physical type specimens (= dead animals) is indeed a necessity: we need such specimens to demonstrate the absolute reality of a taxon. Claims that taxon x is a hybrid or variant can at least be checked against a specimen if it exists in a collection (see the case studies in Bates et al. (2004)), whereas they can't if the thing is out and running round in the wild. And we need to know that taxa are 'real' before we can pin hypotheses on them, or compose conservation strategies for them. At the far extreme end of the spectrum, the existence of controversial animals - like a new mega-mammal, say (yes, I'm thinking of sasquatch) - could only ever be demonstrated by the collection of a body or bodies, as in such cases no amount of scat, hair, DNA, or photographic data would ever definitely be good enough.

As some have said, this issue does seem to boil down to sentiment vs science. I can readily admit that my sentimental feelings get in the way of my views on killing animals, but then that's ok because I'm not out there, trying to catalogue new, extant fauna.

You may, by now, have realised that I've gone off at a tangent. The original point of this article was to draw attention to the fact that the species-level status of the Bulo Burti boubou was challenged in 2008. Nguembock et al. (2008) analysed the molecular phylogeny of 41 Laniarius species and subspecies, producing the first densely-sampled analysis of this taxon (but, note, NOT the first molecular analysis of Laniarius).


They found that the Somali boubou, traditionally regarded as a subspecies of L. aethiopicus and known as L. a. erlangeri, did not group with the rest of L. aethiopicus (or with its closest relatives). Instead it was out on its own, possibly being most closely related to the Red-naped bush-shrike L. ruficeps [shown here, photo by Nik Borrow, from here]. Accordingly, Nguembock et al. (2008) recommended that its original species name, L. erlangeri Reichenow, 1905, be resurrected.

And what of L. liberatus, the Bulo Burti boubou? This was found to cluster with L. erlangeri and thus to be synonymous with it, so: goodbye L. liberatus. Perhaps. Nguembock et al. (2008) only said that the one known specimen 'is identified as an unusual colour morph [of] L. erlangeri', but they otherwise provided little discussion. That seems a bit weird given that 'Molecular data reveal L. liberatus synonymous with L. erlangeri' looms large in the title of the paper.

Refs - -

Banks, R. C., Goodman, S. M., Lanyon, S. M. & Schulenberg, T. S. 1993. Type specimens and basic principles of avian taxonomy. Auk 110, 413-414.

Bates, J. M., Bowie, R. C. K., Willard, D. E., Voelker, G. & Kahindo, C. 2004. A need for continued collecting of avian voucher specimens in Africa: why blood is not enough. Ostrich 75, 187-191.

Collar, N. J. 1999. New species, high standards and the case of Laniarius liberatus. Ibis 141, 358-367.

Nguembock, B., Fjeldså, J., Couloux, A. & Pasquet, E. 2008. Phylogeny of Laniarius: molecular data reveal L. liberatus synonymous with L. erlangeri and "plumage coloration" as unreliable morphological characters for defining species and species groups. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48, 396-407.

Patterson, B. D. 2002. On the continuing need for scientific collecting of mammals. Journal of Neotropical Mammalogy 9, 253-262.

Smith, E. F. G., Arctander, P., Fjeldså, J. & Amir, O. G. 1991. A new species of shrike (Laniidae: Laniarius) from Somalia, verified by DNA sequence data from the only known individual. Ibis 133, 227-235.

More like this

A minor obsession of mine is the idea of verifying by DNA analysis all the rare bird species known only from 1-2 specimens. Infamous one-winged Nechisar nightjar, Vaurie's nightjar, Red Sea swallow, Liverpool Museum pigeon, Lanai hookbill etc. And doing DNA analysis of many "odd" skins catching dust in museum.

I guess a dozen or so of current species will be cancelled, and many overlooked birds can be (re-)discovered.

"Collect" doesn't have to equal "kill" though - in fact, until (= dead animals) i thought you were using the word "collect" to encompass both killing and live-capturing of type specimens.

To me it looks like there are 3 basic options:

a) kill the animal in the wild and collect it dead, or collect and immediately kill it

b) collect the animal alive but keep it in captivity until its death (and then preserve it as the holotype)

c) capture it alive, describe it and release it (as with L. liberatus).

I'm pretty damn sure that Sclater and Rothschild did option b) rather than option c) (just go to Tring to see everything Rothschild did option b) with...)

Of course, b) removes an animal from the wild breeding population just as completely as a) does, so unless you have some sort of absolutist moral thing against killing an animal before the end of its natural lifespan, they are ethically identical - but b) still has the advantage that more can be learned from studying the living animal in captivity before it dies, and then studying the dead animal afterwards, than from studying the dead animal only.

An even better version of option b), where an animal may be critically endangered, would be to look for more specimens, in particular for a specimen of the opposite sex to the first one, and attempt a captive breeding programme. Of course that might not be possible in cases like that of L. liberatus, where it would have been unsafe or impossible to find another bird of the same species, but it probably would have been possible for all the 2005/2006 monkeys...

As for sasquatch, its possible human-level sentience and the probable extreme difficulty of capturing it alive and/or keeping it in captivity (if it exists, which i'm agnostic on) both complicate matters. However, it does strike me that it could be validly described now as an ichnotaxon...

However, it does strike me that it could be validly described now as an ichnotaxon...

You do know that it has been described as an ichnotaxon...

Meldrum, D. J. 2007. Ichnotaxonomy of giant hominoid tracks in North America. New Mexico Bulletin of Natural History and Science 42, 225-231.

The ichnotaxon named therein is Anthropoidipes ameriborealis.

Thanks for the thoughts Shiva.

Darren, I'm with you on this one and applaud your ethical concerns (and I don't regard 'sentimental' as a wrong thing to be, necessarily. Without the capacity for sentiment, what would we be?)
Particularly where a species is rare (endangered) or where a specimen is an unusual variant, removing it (even alive) from the wild population (and breeding gene pool) may be destructive. And until we know otherwise, better not to risk it!

However in these days of hi-tech, including GPS, is there not a further option beyond those listed: that is, to briefly capture and tag, then release? So one may track (and if need be, re-capture) the specimen later (or locate its body once dead)? (Ha, unless predated and eaten of course).

Some possibilities I imagine are leg-rings for birds; micro-chips such as pets are routinely implanted with; or, best of all, remotely- trackable transponders (with telemetry?!). For larger species, might such a tag even be remotely attached, by dart say, thus removing the need for (possibly stressful/injurious) capture?
(Has anyone ever devised a 'smart trap' that would automatically apply a tag and then release the animal?)

One appeal of a remotely-detectable tag is that tracking the specimen is likely to lead us, in time, to others of its kind.

By Graham King (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Graham's idea is definitely valid, but it's going to be a little while still before we get the technology to really make this work. The problem with most current tagging methods is that they just don't have the necessary battery life to outlast the animal. Most of the animals big enough to carry a long-lasting radio tag live long enough to surpass even a long-lasting tag.

Useful things that haven't been applied well yet, as far as I know: signal-activated tags, kinetic energy recovery (like that used for self-winding watches). Several other ideas; part of the problem is that the people interested in having these things haven't often connected with the people capable of building them. With the increasing general technological emphasis on energy efficiency now, and increased interdisciplinary cooperation in science, it might happen soon.

The ethics of collecting is an interesting one. Its funny because I was randomly thinking about holotypes today and how with fossils its easy (there already long dead) but how some people might object to taking live specimen so we can classify it. I guess I have to agree that in most cases taking one specimen will do no harm (providing the population isn't dangerously low). What I don't agree with is collecting and killing for private or society collections etc.
I was told of one societies (i wont name names) actions when the first (and as far as Im away still only) antlion appeared in the county - and what did they do? They killed it and preserved it in their collection, there by making the species extinct in the county again! Pretty dumb and pointless if you ask me

It's also not impossible in many cases that suitable type candidate specimens may already be sitting in unsorted museum collections - another argument for the value of revisiting old collections. Someone on the Taxacom mailing list in the last few days referred to a case where supposedly a "new" monkey species from South America named without a collected type specimen was actually the same as a species named in the 1800s but then mistakenly cast into synonymy. Unfortunately, they didn't say what the specific species was - I'll have to ask.

The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.

- Loren Eiseley, The Lost Notebooks

I was told of one societies (i wont name names) actions when the first (and as far as Im away still only) antlion appeared in the county - and what did they do? They killed it and preserved it in their collection, there by making the species extinct in the county again!

Invertebrates are not necessarily comparable in this regard to vertebrates, because of factors related to the size differential. Large animals tend to have less numerous populations over a larger area, while smaller animals may only occupy a small area but will generally be very numerous where they do occur. There's also the observational factor - records of small animals are invariably only a fraction of actual occurrence because they're generally not seen unless you go looking for them.

The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.

It's tempting to think Tolkien might have had this in mind, or at least the problem of killing type specimens, when he had Gandalf say "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom".

Interesting topic Darren on a difficult issue. In almost all cases I disagree with type specimens being collected and it amazes me how people still find it acceptable to kill multiple individuals simply to subdivide species. I also find it difficult to accept on conservation grounds as it is hypocritical to tell individuals not to hunt an endangered animal when fellow scientitsts are killing them. I appreciate that it may muddy the water of taxonomy, but external morphometric measurements, dental casts (where possible) and genetic data from wild individuals must, in most cases, be sufficient alongside already acquired museum specimens and individuals found naturally dead.

I come at this from the position of a primatologist but I find the ethics difficult no matter what animal is involved. Maybe it is sentiment, but I view species definitions as a purely human invention and I dont believe that untangling the taxonomy of any species warrants or requires the death of any individual.

By Mary Blanchard (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Frivolous nonsense time...

The ichnotaxon named therein is Anthropoidipes ameriborealis.

My take on this takes the form of an (admittedly crappy) anagram:

"I: 'Hider ambi-ape spoor is not real.'"

(Hey, someone anagrammed Nessiteras rhombopteryx too.)

I must say I was quite strongly opposed of collecting specimens of new birds, but now I am not so.

Anyway, you can always preserve part of specimen - e.g. blood sample with DNA and some feathers. Which will give you lots of the necessary info.

Interesting case was Mr. Craig Venter of human genome fame. He collected pelagic sea water when yachting around Bermuda. He found that open tropical sea, which is considered nutrient-poor biological desert, has a lot of DNA of microorganisms too small and uncultivable to find by traditional means. In at least 3 cases, he could make complete microbial genomes from it. So you have complete genetic information of a thing, which nobody ever seen and doesn't know how it looks like!

The type specimen for Homo sapiens was alive when he described himself.

If you can call "man, know thyself" a description.

(Plus, of course, the very concept of "type specimen" hadn't been invented yet; the good man thought everything was obvious anyway.)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 09 Jan 2009 #permalink

One minor problem I see with DNA-only type specimens is the possibility of contamination of specimens during collection or analysis. Without a physical voucher specimen (beyond a few test tubes of blood), it is much more difficult to verify or duplicate the original results.

I was certain that I had read that there was indeed a holotype for H. sapiens, but I appear to have misremembered.

Online discussions say that Linnaeus claimed to have described himself, but given that his remains are unavailable, and his description was insufficiently formal, he doesn't count.

It's also mentioned that Edward Drinker Cope ought to be the holotype, since he left his remains to science. But this apparently is not acceptable for various reasons.

This has more details, and has an amusing cartoon:

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 11 Jan 2009 #permalink

That article is good - and the cartoon is even better :)

But this whole thing about Bakker publishing a paper declaring Cope the type specimen is bogus: no such article exists, and does the supposed venue (Journal of the Wyoming Geological Society) even exist? Psihoyos's book Hunting Dinosaurs is the only source for this stuff. Having said all that, I've never seen...

Spamer, E. E. 1999: Know thyself: responsible science and the lectotype of Homo sapiens Linnaeus, 1758. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 149, 109-114.

Has anyone? It's sometimes said that Stearn (1959) made Linnaeus the H. sapiens lectotype. In fact Stearn only recommended this, and the reasons given weren't particularly convincing. See also Spamer's comments here.

Ref - -

Stearn, W. T. 1959. The background of Linnaeus's contributions to the nomenclature and methods of systematic biology. Systematic Zoology 8, 4-27.

Mike Taylor,
I'm seeing that line quoted quite regularly in the last few years, but everybody seems to forget that the next line is "But his words were empty, and he knew it." Which kind of detracts from whatever can be inferred about what either Gandalf or Tolkien was thinking at the time. But I see what you mean, I think (it doesn't often emerge in his writing, but letters and biographies show that JRRT was quite a fan of science and science-fiction, though not of technology or democracy). The Eiseley quote does strike a note for me: as a snake taxonomist, I recall the discomfort I felt on first seeing a specimen being euthanased at the Australian Museum (a common species, Eastern Small-eyed Snake Cryptophis nigrescens) in 1978; but the fact is, you get specimens in much better condition that way, rather than basing collections solely on ex-captives, road-kill, cat-prey or shotgun victims. That makes a real difference to the quality of data that can be obtained from tissues or by counting scales, dissecting guts and gonads, or preparing skeletons. Outside of birds and primates, I don't think the uncollected holotype is going to be a common motif in future taxonomy.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 11 Jan 2009 #permalink

Belated and unhelpful advice: This entry could have been titled "Bye-Bye Bulo Burti boubou."

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 11 Jan 2009 #permalink

Two mistakes in the newspaper article:
- ipsum, not ipseum.
- Illnesses don't rule out use as a type specimen at all. The type specimen does not have to be typical, just identifiable (interesting that Daeschler gets this wrong!). Biological nomenclature is not Platonist.

Linnaeus claimed to have described himself,

Untrue. The whole text of the description is "HOMO noſce Te ipsum." -- Linnaeus understandably thought that no serious description was necessary.

but given that his remains are unavailable

I'd say that depends. I don't know who it is that you'd have to convince to open the grave in the cathedral in Uppsala, but that's the only problem I can see.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

David - to make you look less silly I'll delete the last four comments. You're right though: there are bugs in the system.

About the type specimen for H. Sapiens...
The newspaper article and cartoon talk about the specimen having to be chosen "impartially," and infer that it would have to be chosen by a non-human: I've never seen any reference to this sort of rule (to be fair, I haven't looked!), and the inference seems loony. Sure, human scientists have biases, but they're supposed to TRY to overcome them, and for practiacl purposes that's the most we can ask.

Next issue.

From the newspaper column: "Presumably, Cope aspired to become a human lectotype, perhaps a neotype. But Rosenberg says neither is possible because another requirement for becoming a type specimen is being part of the material available to describing scientists. Generally speaking, that would include anybody alive or dead in 1758, when Linnaeus described Homo sapiens. Cope was born in 1840, thus missing the qualifying deadline by 82 years."

Neotypes DO get chosen (in cases where the original has been lost or destroyed or where one wasn't specified). If the specimens studied by the original describer are still available, they seem to be first choice: certainly I've seen articles by people who have ferreted out specimens they think were studied by some long-dead scientist for this purpose. But -- assuming Linnaeus himself would otherwise have been the obvious choice -- perhaps storage under the floor at the Cathedral in Uppsala for a quarter of a millenium has degraded the specimen to the point that it would not be a useful type any more? There is an alternative: I have also seen articles reporting that modern specimens have been acquired to be designated as neotypes.

So who do we choose? No need to go all huffy about "what makes Europeans ideal representatives of humanity?" -- "ideal representative" isn't a concept of zoology. When neotypes are chosen for a species, the goal is to find specimens which (so far as can be determined) are of the same subspecies/variety as those first described. (For good reason: you don't want to have the whole business held hostage to by the possibility that later study will lead to splitting the species!) In articles I have seen, this was done by sending hunters to (as close as could be determined to be) the locality where the original describer's specimen(s) had come from.

So MY proposal, should anyone care to listen, is that if neotypes are really wanted for H. sapiens, the thing to do would be to go to Sweden-- to Linnaeus's home town perhaps, or just to Uppsala given that he doubtless observed his students and colleagues-- and ask for volunteers.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

David - to make you look less silly I'll delete the last four comments.

Please do. Also, feel free in editing whatever remains to avoid references to deleted comments.

(Were you waiting for my approval, or did the blog software throw another tantrum when you tried to delete...?)

Neotypes DO get chosen (in cases where the original has been lost or destroyed or where one wasn't specified).

In cases where the original type(s) have been lost or destroyed, yes. In cases where none was specified, the name is a nomen vanum and technically invalid* till someone goes ahead and selects a holotype, if I'm not mistaken.

* At least if coined after 1930. I'll have to dig through the ICZN, unless someone else does it first.

perhaps storage under the floor at the Cathedral in Uppsala for a quarter of a millenium has degraded the specimen to the point that it would not be a useful type any more?

Someone will have to open the lid and look...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 #permalink

Were you waiting for my approval

No, I became busy with other stuff. But thanks for approval anyway.