For some years now, a prolific amateur herpetologist has published an absolutely extraordinary number of new taxonomic names* for snakes, lizards and other reptiles.

Lest we forget, the world is full of amazing snakes. Top row, left to right: Prairie or Western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), Bornean keeled green pitviper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) and Mole snake (Pseudapis cana). Lower row, left to right: Rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus), Rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis) and Smooth-scaled death adder (Acanthophis laevis). All photos by Wolfgang Wster and used with permission.

In addition to naming well over 100 supposedly new snake and lizard genera, this individual has also produced taxonomic revisions of the worlds cobras, burrowing asps, vipers, rattlesnakes, water snakes, blindsnakes, pythons, crocodiles and so on. But, alas, his work is not of the careful, methodical, conservative and respected sort that you might associate with a specialised, dedicated amateur; rather, his articles appear in his own, in-house, un-reviewed, decidedly non-technical publications, theyre notoriously unscientific in style and content, and his taxonomic recommendations have been demonstrated to be problematic, frequently erroneous and often ridiculous (witness the many new taxa he has named after his pet dogs; Im not kidding, I wish I was).

Egyptian cobra (Naja haje): included within the Naja subgenus Uraeus by Wallach et al. (2009) but given a new genus - Wellsus - by Hoser. The name honours Richard Wells (on which, read on). Photo (c) Wolfgang Wster, used with permission.

In short, the new (and really terribly formulated) taxonomic names that this individual throws out at the global herpetological community represent a sort of taxonomic vandalism; were expected to use these names, and indeed theyre supposedly officially valid according to the letter of the law, yet they besmirch the field, they litter the taxonomic registry with monstrosities, and they cause working herpetologists to waste valuable time clearing up unnecessary messes when they really should be spending their time on such areas as conservation, biological monitoring, toxicology and the documentation of ranges and environmental preferences.

I am of course talking about Australian researcher and snake hobbyist Raymond Hoser. The charges against him are many. Ive mentioned Hoser on a few previous occasions on Tet Zoo, most notably in the article on Australian freshwater crocodiles. Its time to explore the issue in more depth, and now is the right time. Well see why in a minute.

* Mostly generic, specific and subspecific names, but some that are at the level of such ranks as subgenera, subtribes and tribes. Ranks, of course, are arbitrary, misleading and should be abolished.

A bit of required background: the concept of taxonomic freedom and the Principle of Priority

The African crocodile Crocodylus suchus, placed in the new genus 'Oxycrocodylus' by Hoser. What's the etymology? The names honours Hosers dog, Oxyuranus (itself named after the Australian snake). Photographer unknown: this image appeared on carnivora forum.

One of the key principles of zoological taxonomy the practise and science of naming organisms is whats known as taxonomic freedom. In other words, its acknowledged that not all experts agree on how animals should be classified: are members of set x all members of the same species, or are some actually members of species y? Or are we seeing intrapopulational variation, sexual dimorphism, ontogeny, or some other aspect of variation? Debates over species boundaries and taxonomic interpretations are commonplace and it typically takes a lot of work to sort them out (via, for example, statistical analyses of large numbers of individuals, molecular phylogenetics, and so on).

The Principle of Priority makes sense, but it's not always our friend. We're stuck, for example, with the name Basilosaurus for this extinct whale. Photo by Darren Naish.

Moving on, a well-established rule of the taxonomic naming system is the so-called Principle of Priority. Because people sometimes name the same organism more than once (sometimes because they dont know about the work of their predecessors, sometimes because they think theyre dealing with a new genus, species or subspecies when they actually arent, and sometimes because theyre naughty and are trying to make a claim-jump), its agreed that the very first name given to the organism is the one that we have to stick to, even if that first name is terrible or stupid. There are special cases where a name can be overturned but, by and large, the Principle of Priority is pretty important and it more or less guarantees a namers place in history (remember that the full scientific name of an organism includes more than the organisms name alone: Homo sapiens, for example, is properly Homo sapiens Linnaeus, 1758).

Hugh, what have you done? Hugh Edwin Strickland, as illustrated in 1858 by Francis William Wilkin (image in public domain). In 1842, Strickland worked with others in the British Association to establish the Principle of Priority.

So, if you encounter an animal that you, personally, regard as worthy of distinct taxonomic recognition, youre within your rights to name it as such, so long as you follow the rules set out in the ICZN (= International Code of Zoological Nomenclature) by the ICZN (= International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature). Once you publish it, the name is (more or less) forever burned into history.

What are these rules? As you can see for yourself at the ICZN site, a new name has to be published in a permanent, duplicable form thats available to others, it has to be clearly stated as a new name, it has to be published within the context of the binomial (or binominal) system, and it must be established on a type specimen basically, a key reference specimen. Notably, many of the key ideas that we typically associate with the publication of scientific research like standards of practise, an appropriate level of scholarship, and peer review are, actually, not required by the ICZN.

In other words, individuals can still work within the Code even if their conclusions, proposals and work in general is problematical and unsatisfactory. They can still name new species that, technically speaking, are valid, available and (in theory) fixed due to the Principle of Priority.

Mega-prolific Raymond Hoser: one of the greatest herpetologists of all time!

George Boulenger (1858-1937), Belgian-British zoologist and prolific describer of new amphibians, reptiles and other organisms. In all, he named over 2000 new species (556 of which are amphibians and 872 of which are reptiles). Needless to say, not all have passed the test of time. His impact on our knowledge has been enormous. Image in public domain.

Back to Hoser. I dont mean to denigrate Mr Hosers research abilities, experience with snakes and other reptiles, or intelligence. As others before me have said, its obvious that he does have extensive, impressive, detailed knowledge of reptile diversity, anatomy and biology. But, the fact is that he is very obviously, cleverly, cheating his way through zoological nomenclature. Yes, hes naming, and publishing umpteen new herpetological names. If you want some figures: he named 89 tribes and subtribes, 113 genera, 64 subgenera, 25 species and 53 subspecies between 2000 and September 2012 alone: thats 76% of all new genera and subgenera named worldwide during that period (Kaiser et al. 2013). If these taxonomic recommendations and proposals were valid, they would make Hoser a more significant taxonomic force than most of the great explorer-herpetologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Unlike the respected work produced by the experts of the past, however, Hosers is typically amazingly slapdash.

Australia sure has some amazing elapids. Given that Hoser claims to have the interests of the animals at heart, it's bizarre that he defaces their taxonomy with horrible names that never honour the animals themselves. This is Oxyuranus microlepidotus, the Inland taipan. Photo by AllenMcC, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In fact, the impression you get from his articles all appearing in his self-published Australasian Journal of Herpetology, and before that in several amateur publications including Litteratura Serpentium and The Monitor is that theyre written as much to piss off working herpetologists and to vent his own spleen as anything else. They are, frankly, shockingly and hilariously unscientific. Many include long rants directed at officials and employees of local government as well as at qualified researchers. There are in fact so many cases of this non-scientific in fact, truly amateurish, if not childish practise in his articles that there are too many to recount. [Adjacent photo by AllenMcC.]

If youre curious about the technical shortcomings of his taxonomic proposals, lets look at a few of them. In order to make a claim for the distinctive nature of an alleged new taxon, you need to state those features that make it distinctive. In other words, you need to diagnose it. Hosers diagnoses are typically inadequate, contradictory, vague, or erroneous, sometimes referring to features that arent unique (example: the black labial markings in his species 'Acanthophis crotalusei'), and sometimes referring vaguely to work on scale counts, overall appearance or DNA that hasnt been documented or published anywhere (Wster et al. 2001, Kaiser et al. 2013). [Death adder photo below by Petra Karstedt.]

Death adders are incredible snakes. This is the Smooth-scaled death adder (Acanthophis laevis); photo by Petra Karstedt, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license.

Northern white-lipped python (Leiopython albertisi), named for Papuan explorer Luigi Maria D'Albertis. A beautiful mammal-eating python that is sometimes strikingly iridescent. Photo by Dawson, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Alleged new taxa have also been based on specimens where the diagnostic characters clearly represent post-mortem distortion (see examples discussed in Kaiser et al. 2013). To add insult to injury, Hoser has sometimes named the same alleged new taxa on more than one occasion. 'Leiopython albertisi barkeri' Hoser, 2000 is the same as 'L. a. barkerorum' Hoser, 2009 which was then redescribed as if it were new in 2012. Similarly, 'Oxyuranus scutellatus barringeri' Hoser, 2002 is the same as 'O. s. andrewwilsoni' Hoser, 2009 (Kaiser et al. 2013). Many of the new names Hoser creates are incorrectly formulated: see Wster et al. (2001) for a list and their amendments. [Adjacent Leiopython photo by Dawson.]

Slapping names on cladograms: its quick, its cheap, its dirty

Another thing that Hoser does is look at published cladograms, note cases where genera or species are shown as being non-monophyletic, and then act by naming those lineages that dont group with the type species of the given genus. In principle this isnt necessarily a bad practise, but read on.

Keeled slug snake (Pareas carinatus). Close relatives of this species - conventionally included within Pareas - were put into the new genus 'Katrinahoserserpenea' by Hoser. Image by W. A. Djatmiko, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

There are numerous examples of this; they explain why Hoser has published such names as 'Katrinahoserserpenea' for certain Oriental slug-eating snakes (Hoser 2012a), 'Katrinahoserea' for the Green ratsnake (Hoser 2012b), 'Swileserpens' for the Pale-headed forest snake (Hoser 2012c), 'Michaelnicholsus' for members of the Madagascan hognosed snake group (Hoser 2012c), 'Lukefabaserpens' and 'Ginafabaserpenae' for some of the cat-eyed snakes (Hoser 2012d), 'Gregwedoshus' and 'Neilsonnemanus' for certain garter snakes (Hoser 2012e), 'Jackyhosernatrix' for certain natricine water snakes (Hoser 2012f), 'Sharonhoserea' for the Southern smooth snake (Hoser 2012f), so on and on and on. [Adjacent photo of Pareas carinatus by W. A. Djatmiko.]

Note the terrible, terrible names that Hoser comes up with: other notable word-monsters include 'Adelynhoserserpenae', 'Charlespiersonserpens', 'Euanedwardsserpens', 'Moseselfakharikukri', 'Trioanotyphlops' and 'Martinwellstyphlops'. Most (maybe all?) of Hosers taxonomic names are patronyms: names that honour people. Thats fine, but there has to be a limit to this sort of behaviour, especially when the namer is repeatedly naming things after the members of their own family and after their pets. As I said earlier, Hoser has named several taxa after his pet dogs, explaining at length how these noble canines have contributed more to herpetology than have the majority of the worlds researching academics (e.g., Hoser 2012g).

Hoser frequently points to cladograms (such as this one: this is the natricine section of Pyron et al.'s (2011) giant colubrid phylogeny) to support the taxonomic splits and re-namings that he proposes. Yes, non-monophyly abounds in studies like this. But is it right to jump all over the cladogram and get to work slapping names all over the place? These things take time and a lot of work to sort out and do properly.

We do, of course, all know of cases where long-standing genera and/or species do indeed warrant revision. However, how are researchers meant to act when they spot these sorts of problems? My suggestion: once such a problem has been identified, good practise is to compile and run your own analysis, not to rush out a brief, non-illustrated article, the only purpose of which is to slap a name on a given lineage. If a researcher played the name-bagging name once in their career they might be forgiven (as I said, we all know of cases where new names are needed and people are just waiting for someone to come along and sort the mess out). But if they did this as a matter of course, again and again and again, typically naming new taxa after their family members and such, I think it would be pretty clear that they were deliberately and desperately name-bagging in the hope for taxonomic immortality.

Incidentally, if, at this stage, youre thinking that the taxonomic names we apply to snakes and other reptiles dont really matter, think again. The whole reason we give names to things is so that we can talk about those things with other people. Confusion and disagreement are the opposite of useful when were dealing with conservation and summoning up the political and social will to protect animals and their environments. Furthermore, venomous snakes are a special case since a stable nomenclature known to people in the healthcare profession is a must; or it is, at least, if you want people to get the right antivenom after they get bitten.

Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). According to Hoser's proposed taxonomy, this is the only species that should be retained within the subgenus Crotalus of his restricted version of the genus Crotalus. Photo by Tad Arensmeier, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Has anybody, actually, yet become confused by the fact that spurious and problematic name changes have been suggested for any of these animals? After all, most working herpetologists have deliberately ignored and not used the names Hoser publishes in his articles. However, the Brazilian Society of Herpetologists adopted the new taxonomic arrangement for rattlesnakes suggested by Hoser (2009), and this had a knock-on effect in the Brazilian literature. As argued by Wster & Brnils (2011), Hosers taxonomic suggestions for rattlesnakes were redundant in the first place (they mostly involve subjectively sub-dividing an already monophyletic entity, namely Crotalus), are inconsistent with some published phylogenetic work, and are based on the assumption that certain parts of the phylogeny are resolved and fixed for the foreseeable future. These are the technical problems; there are the additional ones related to the standing of Hosers articles in the first place (Wster & Brnils 2011). [Adjacent photo of Crotalus horridus by Tad Arensmeier.]

What to do? Quality control should be integral to taxonomic publications

The awesome Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). Hoser suggests that this species be made the type species for his new genus 'Hoserea' (named for his wife). Image by Gary Stolz, in public domain.

What can we actually do about this problem? Even the most lenient of liberal libertarians will agree that theres a problem here: we clearly have an individual who isnt using the same standards or anything close to them when publishing new names, and hes insanely prolific to boot. What can we do? Well, thats a problem. Given what I said above about taxonomic freedom and the Principle of Priority, its essentially impossible to use the ICZN to discount or dismiss or ignore or strike off names that have been published and which meet the basic criteria discussed above. Or is it?

The reason Im writing about this issue now is that a group of working herpetologists have recently published a concise and very readable point-of-view piece on the subject in Herpetological Review (Kaiser et al. 2013). Note that the article is open access. Just to prove what a professional, ethical individual he is, Hoser previously published, in full, an unpublished version of this manuscript that was leaked to him (Hoser 2012h).

Proof that we secretly collude in order to stop Hoser's brilliant research being accepted by the masses: from left to right, Darren Naish, Helen Meredith, Wolfgang Wster.

Predictably enough, Hoser (2013) has since published another article in which, over more than 60 pages, he responds in characteristic fashion to Kaiser et al. (2013), referring to them as alleged scientists and serial liars throughout; he even (for reasons best known to himself) keeps calling their article a blog (a blog is an updated, diary-style website: the word is not synonymous with article). Hosers 2013 article includes a full reprinting of the final formatted version of Kaiser et al. (2013) from Herpetological Review. Hm, something tells me youre not allowed to do that. Youll be pleased to hear that I get a brief mention: Im referred to as a serial spammer, as a close friend of [Mark] OShea and also as someone guilty of promoting the Kaiser et al. article on twitter (Hoser 2013). Yup, guilty as charged, and proud of it (bar the erroneous spammer claim... again, does he know what the word in question actually means?). In fact, its worse: Im also close friends with Wolfgang Wster, and above you can see the proof (in reality, Ive met Mark and Wolfgang on, respectively, one and one occasions, but... whatever).

The Lord Howe Island skink, currently known as Oligosoma lichenigera. However, Wells & Wellington (1984) give it the new generic name Vaderscincus. The etymology? "Named for Mr Darth Vader" (p. 104). Image (c) Mark Sanders.

Kaiser et al. (2013) is not specifically about Hoser, since there have been (and are) several other authors who also self-publish taxonomic revisions where theres little to no evidence of appropriate scholarship. Kaiser et al. (2013) also write about Richard Wells who, since 2000, has named over 25 new genera and numerous taxa in another self-published publication called Australian Biodiversity Record. Wells is notorious in the world of Australian herpetology for publishing two lengthy catalogues (co-authored with Ross Wellington) that made an enormous number of taxonomic recommendations for Australian reptiles and amphibians, few if any of them justified or supported in the way thats normal for new systematic decisions (Wells & Wellington 1983, 1985). [Adjacent photo of Lord Howe Island skink by Mark Sanders, from here on]

An attempt by a group of over 150 Australian herpetologists to get the ICZN to suppress the names published by Wells and Wellington was unsuccessful: the ICZN more or less says that groups of researchers, not the Commission itself, have to police such problem areas themselves. The entire case is fairly well known and has been summarised and discussed numerous times in the literature (Grigg & Shine 1985, King & Miller 1985, Tyler 1985, 1988, Thulborn 1986, Ingram & Covacevich 1988, Hutchinson 1988, Iverson et al. 2001, Williams et al. 2006).

With all of this in mind, Kaiser et al. (2013) argue that, basically, a measure of quality control is required if were to stop the literature being flooded with problem names appearing in unsatisfactory publications. The good news of course is that we already have exactly such a system: namely, peer review. It makes perfect sense that new taxa should only be named in those published works that make it through the normal scientific channels and Kaiser et al. (2013) strongly recommend that we introduce such a way of assessing the merits, or otherwise, of publications that include new taxonomic names. All published recommendations, as weve seen, are not created equal.

See all those pinkish boxes? This is the table of Hoser names (taking up more than 6 pages) compiled by Kaiser et al. (2013). See the paper for yourself: it's open access!

What about the Principle of Priority we looked at earlier? Its well known that, in special cases, the ICZN will indeed rule against the use of certain names; the ICZN likes stability and the use of its rules, but it doesnt like frivolity nor does it approve of new names that appear in non-technical publications. Kaiser et al. (2013) provide a long table in their paper that lists all the names that Hoser has published, together with their suggestions as to the recommended names that working herpetologists should use for the taxa in question. It is strongly advised that herpetologists boycott Hosers names and use the recommendations: its hoped that the ICZN will eventually rule against the use of Hoser names while putting aside the Principle of Priority. It has happened before.

Over the years, Hoser has had at least a bit of fair criticism (e.g., Aplin 1999, Wster et al. 2001, Williams et al. 2006, Borrell 2007). He refers to those qualified herpetologists who criticise him and his work as the truth haters: the obvious implication being that hes on the side of The Truth. Jeez, what is it with people on the fringes and their adherence to the notion that only they are seeing The Truth? Incidentally, Hoser frequently charges those of us who criticise him as plagiarists. In fact, he directed that specific charge at me after I wrote (unfavourably) about his crocodile article. Again, I can only conclude that he doesnt know what the word really means.

Elsewhere in his life, Hosers constant battles with local law enforcement a subject Im not interested in here, of course have led to his being found guilty of (and fined for) scandalising the court.

All due credit to Stevo Darkly.

Then theres the fact that hes developed a technique of pinning down unanaesthetised venomous snakes on a table and cutting out their venom ducts (Hoser 2004). These snakes have been extensively handled (often in front of crowds) and Hoser is more than happy to let the snakes bite his daughters in order to demonstrate how safe they are. As youll find out if you check the wikipedia page on Hoser, hes been convicted and fined for demonstrating with venomous snakes in close proximity to the public and has also had his commercial wildlife demonstrator license suspended. Events are ongoing, with some dated to this month (June 2013). There are also the various, err, interesting videos online that show how Hoser interacts with female work experience students.

Hard-working amateurs should be encouraged to contribute to science, not shunned or admonished, and it has always been stated on every occasion that unaffiliated researchers have frequently done sterling work. Fortunately, individuals like Mr Hoser are extremely rare and their research efforts are mostly recognised as the unsatisfactory, non-technical and bizarrely idiosyncratic contributions that they are (if anybody doubts my characterisation of Hosers works, take a look yourself since theyre all available online: links to pdfs are below). Nevertheless, the issue of taxonomic vandalism needs to be appreciated as widely as possible, and hopefully curtailed altogether.

UPDATE: this article was edited in March 2014 such that Hoser's names were taken out of italics and put in quote marks. This was done since otherwise it looked as if the Hoser names were 'proper' scientific names that are used by others.

Hoser Taxonomy (as its known) has been mentioned or discussed on a few previous occasions on Tet Zoo. See

Refs - -

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Borrell, B. 2007. Linnaeus at 300: the big name hunters. Nature 446, 253-255.

Grigg, G. C. & Shine, R. 1985. An open letter to all herpetologists. Herpetological Review 16, 96-97.

Hoser, R. 2004. Surgical removal of venom glands in Australian elapid snakes: the creation of venomoids. The Herptile 29 (1), 36-52.

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