Stylocheilus's name - beating a dead horse?

March 16, 2001
From: Edwin Cruz-Rivera

With the risk of asking what to some might be obvious, I once again bring the question of the taxonomic status of Stylocheilus longicauda vs. S. striatus. I have recently submitted a paper on some aspects of the ecology of this sea hare and a few more are underway. Given the issues brought forth in this Forum, I am wondering what species name I should use.

For my article, I used Stylocheilus striatus and as reference I cited the website where this was discussed. However, a couple of problems with this have been pointed out to me in reviews:
• 1) Websites are very rarely permanent (addresses can change, lists die off, etc.) so citing a website might not provide a source for confirmation in the future.
• 2) The opinions in the website are not unilateral in favor for the change.
• 3) The website is not a "peer reviewed" source.
• 4) Other things pointed out like the fact so many people have used the presumed "wrong" name are already in the webpage and need not be mentioned.

Having seen both Stylocheilus "types" alive and kicking, I have little doubt in my mind they are two species. I also agree with Rudman's arguments on changing the name of what is currently called S. longicauda to S. striatus (based on his analysis of Quoy and Gaimard's treatise) and I have spoken to Clay Carlson about this more than once. However, I can not ignore the comments above. So I want to know what this Forum thinks about these issues. Should S. longicauda keep on being used until someone publishes a paper clarifying all this, or do we have enough to simply correct the missmatch in future publications?
Your thoughts are appreciated.

Cruz-Rivera, E., 2001 (Mar 16) Stylocheilus's name - beating a dead horse?. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from

Dear Edwin,
No you are not beating a dead horse. The nomenclatural complication in this case is that S. longicauda was being used for the wrong animal. This is not a case of resurrecting an old name for pedantic reasons. The old name was being used - but for the wrong species.

Let me address the 4 points you bring up.
Website permanence.
We are living in a time of change, where the web is becoming an important and growing source of information. Many funding bodies worldwide are supporting the development of online databases of various sorts, which are going to become an essential source of information. The challenge is not to ignore these databases but to find ways to refer to them. I have developed a standard citation for the Forum which if cited as published, will find the record as long as the Forum exists. Even if the citation system is not used and messages are cited by author, title and full date, they will be found. Which leads to the question about the permanence of the Forum. The Forum is part of the Australian Museum website and all the planning that has gone into it is based on it being a permanent site. Part of this planning includes how to organise the site so that it is self-sustainable and in the future will allow me to fade out from day to day participation. In general, website 'publications' have created a new problem for archivists, but we can't just wring our hands and ignore the advantages of this new technology. I am sure we will find a solution to the 'permanence' problem, especially, if by our use of it, we show we have something valuable to preserve.
Opinions not unilateral.
Basically science is not a democracy. People disagree for all sorts of reasons. In the end you have to make your own judgement based on the evidence available to you.
Not peer-reviewed.
What is peer review? In theory, it is an excellent system in which we try to keep our colleagues honest by checking their methods and alerting them to possible errors. Unfortunately what it often is, at least in taxonomy and systematics, is 2 or sometimes 3 overworked colleagues quickly scanning through a manuscript, picking up obvious errors, and some typographical errors etc. Some reviewers are incredibly diligent, and we should be grateful for their efforts, but they are unfortunately a minority. In taxonomy in particular, the author is often the first person for many years to have studied the group in detail so his reviewers are often only able to make a judgement on the methodology, the layout and the grammar. There is no way they can check the anatomy, which is the basis of the work. The other problem with print publications is that no journals have a 'Letters to the Editor' column, so mistakes, missed by reveiwers, go uncorrected for years. I think peer review is better than nothing but it is not perfection. And most colour photo guidebooks, which many use for identification, undergo no serious pre publication review.

The Forum has been denigrated as an unreviewed 'backdoor publication'. I am proud to be associated with any publication - backdoor or frontdoor - that has 7784 different readers every month [see Visitors to Forum]. I would be surprised if any peer reviewed taxonomic publications were read by 7784 readers in a 100 years let alone a month! So is the Forum peer reviewed? Amongst the Forum's 7,784 readers a month, are a good proportion of my collegues - our peers. I know that if I post a message which someone disagrees with, there is a response - and a correction if needed - within a few days. To me that is real peer review.
it's not worth mentioning
Clearly Stylocheilus longicauda has been used for the wrong species in quite a few ecological papers. I think it is worth a short paragraph saying why you are using S. striatus for what was previously called S. longicauda with a reference to the Forum. Unless you alert ecologists and non-taxonomists to the name change they will either think you are dealing with a different species or just become confused.
Wait for a publication.
You could be waiting a long time. This is a simple identification problem, not a taxonomic problem. There are too few taxonomists in the world for you to wait until every identification problem is resolved and published on paper. For that matter, I think it has been published. You know about, and at least 8000 others will read this and know about it as well. If that's not published I don't know what is. There is of course a distinction between what we normally mean by 'publish' and what the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature define as a valid publication for nomenclatural purposes. I would not attempt to publish a new species description on the web at present. But we are not talking about a nomenclatural decision here, we are talking about a question of identification - and there is no International Rule telling us how we are to do that.

Sorry to be so long-winded, but your query gave me a chance to say a few things about the Forum that I have been forced to argue over quite a lot recently. Is it science? Is it worthwhile etc etc? My advice is defend and use the new technology - I wish I had it when I started my career,
Best wishes,
Bill Rudman

Rudman, W.B., 2001 (Mar 16). Comment on Stylocheilus's name - beating a dead horse? by Edwin Cruz-Rivera. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from

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