150 years later, we set a naming record straight!

The first scientist to publish a valid name for a new species is given credit for its discovery. That's been the convention for the past 200 years. We were therefore amazed to discover recently that a species of marsupial, a dunnart, from Western Australia (WA), named as a new species by renowned Australian Museum zoologist Gerard Krefft in 1872, had been completely overlooked – or was it deliberately ignored?

Krefts White tailed dunnart specimen
White tailed dunnart specimen Image: Anja Divljan
© Australian Museum

To this day, his new species had never made it into the scientific literature and had all but vanished from the historical record. This is unusual. Normally, the countless scientific names proposed in the 19th century, many of them dubious, at least end up listed as synonyms (recognised, but superseded and no longer valid), but not in this case. We set the record straight in a paper that addresses the technical side of zoological nomenclature, and gives due credit to Krefft, who had an advanced understanding of small mammal taxonomy.

How did this unfortunate situation transpire? Some background on the case is necessary. Dunnarts are very cute, insectivorous marsupials a bit larger than a mouse, and are found in Australia and the island of New Guinea. All 19 species belong to the genus Sminthopsis, but in Krefft’s day dunnarts were recognised as the genus Podabrus, and only a few species were known.

Krefft named his new species, from the Albany district, WA, the “White-tailed Podabrus”, Podabrus albocaudatus. It's clearly a distinct species. Krefft’s common name and scientific name both reflected a unique characteristic of the species: the conspicuously white hairs on the tail. He only had one specimen, which remains preserved in alcohol in the collection today (see image above).

Krefft’s species Podabrus albocaudatus is known today as the White-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis granulipes, named by Australian Museum mammalogist Ellis Troughton, in 1932—60 years after it had been named by Krefft! Remarkably, Troughton also only had one specimen of his new species – the exact same specimen used by Krefft. That specimen is the holotype (the single individual used when describing a species) for both scientific names. But only one name can be used.

Common Dunnart, Sminthopsis murina
Sminthopsis murina, Common Dunnart Image: G A Hoye
© Australian Museum

The valid scientific name for a species is strictly regulated by the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Krefft published first (which usually means that it is the rightful name), but Troughton’s Sminthopsis granulipes must remain in use because it’s been the name used in scientific and general publications since 1932 and to change names would violate a key aim of the Code – ensuring that long-established names are not disrupted.

Krefft published his description of Podabrus albocaudatus in the Sydney Mail, one of Sydney’s leading daily newspapers. We discovered that Krefft and Troughton had named new species based on the same specimen, because we had an advantage over Troughton – the internet. We found Krefft’s species description, from which we learnt that the collector was George Maxwell. This led to documents in the Australian Museum Archives, which revealed that Troughton’s specimen was the one used by Krefft. This demonstrates that even after 150 years of scientists pouring over the collection, the collection and Archives remain vital tools for modern zoological research.

In the latter half of the 19th century, scientists published new species in daily newspapers, but it was frowned upon by more conservative members of Sydney’s scientific community. Krefft had a different view: scientific knowledge should be freely accessible by the general public.

Why did Krefft’s new species of Podabrus vanish from the scientific record for 150 years? A combination of factors is likely, but a clue could be his now famous, prolonged conflict with the Museum Trustees. This ended in his abrupt removal from office in September, 1874. Krefft was apparently persona non grata at the Museum for decades after his removal. The day after Krefft’s eviction, he was replaced by his arch enemy, Ed Ramsay – the new darling of the Museum Trustees, who made a major contribution to zoology over ensuing decades. Ramsay also published new species in Sydney newspapers in the 1870’s, but unlike Krefft’s Podabrus, his species were promptly adopted into the scientific literature.

Did the small scientific community of Sydney turn their backs on Krefft and deliberately ignore his new Podabrus, perhaps on the self-contradictory excuse that it wasn’t published in a learned journal? (No offence intended to the Sydney Mail!) Whatever the reason, the next generation of zoologists were unaware of the bumper Saturday edition of the Sydney Mail for 9 November, 1872 containing the valid description of Krefft’s new Podabrus.

Dr Harry Parnaby
Research Associate, Australian Museum Research Institute

Dr Sandy Ingleby
Collection Manager, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Australian Museum Research Institute

Dr Anja Divljan
Technical Officer, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Australian Museum Research Institute

More information:

Strahan, R. (Ed.) (1979). Rare and Curious Specimens: an Illustrated History of the Australian Museum, 1827–1979. The Australian Museum, Sydney, 173 pp.

Parnaby, H., S. Ingleby & A. Divljan. (2015). Taxonomic status of Podabrus albocaudatus Krefft, 1872 and declaration of Sminthopsis granulipes Troughton, 1932 (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae) as a protected name for the White-tailed Dunnart from Western Australia. Zootaxa 3904(2): 283–292.