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

In addition to naming well over 100 supposedly new snake and lizard genera, this individual has also produced taxonomic revisions of the world’s 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, they’re 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; I’m not kidding, I wish I was).

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; we’re expected to use these names, and – indeed – they’re 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. I’ve mentioned Hoser on a few previous occasions on Tet Zoo, most notably in the article on Australian freshwater crocodiles. It’s time to explore the issue in more depth, and now is the right time. We’ll 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

One of the key principles of zoological taxonomy – the practise and science of naming organisms – is what’s known as taxonomic freedom. In other words, it’s 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).

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 don’t know about the work of their predecessors, sometimes because they think they’re dealing with a new genus, species or subspecies when they actually aren’t, and sometimes because they’re naughty and are trying to make a claim-jump), it’s 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 namer’s ‘place in history’ (remember that the full scientific name of an organism includes more than the organism’s name alone: Homo sapiens, for example, is properly Homo sapiens Linnaeus, 1758).

So, if you encounter an animal that you, personally, regard as worthy of distinct taxonomic recognition, you’re 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 that’s 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!

Back to Hoser. I don’t mean to denigrate Mr Hoser’s research abilities, experience with snakes and other reptiles, or intelligence. As others before me have said, it’s 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, he’s 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: that’s 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, Hoser’s is typically amazingly slapdash.

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 they’re 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 you’re curious about the technical shortcomings of his taxonomic proposals, let’s 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. Hoser’s diagnoses are typically inadequate, contradictory, vague, or erroneous, sometimes referring to features that aren’t 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 hasn’t been documented or published anywhere (Wüster et al. 2001, Kaiser et al. 2013). [Death adder photo below by Petra Karstedt.]

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 Wüster et al. (2001) for a list and their amendments. [Adjacent Leiopython photo by Dawson.]

Slapping names on cladograms: it’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s 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 don’t group with the type species of the given genus. In principle this isn’t necessarily a bad practise, but read on.

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 Hoser’s taxonomic names are patronyms: names that honour people. That’s 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 world’s researching academics (e.g., Hoser 2012g).

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, you’re thinking that the taxonomic names we apply to snakes and other reptiles don’t 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 we’re 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.

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 Wüster & Bérnils (2011), Hoser’s 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 Hoser’s articles in the first place (Wüster & Bérnils 2011). [Adjacent photo of Crotalus horridus by Tad Arensmeier.]

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

What can we actually do about this problem? Even the most lenient of liberal libertarians will agree that there’s a problem here: we clearly have an individual who isn’t using the same standards – or anything close to them – when publishing new names, and he’s insanely prolific to boot. What can we do? Well, that’s a problem. Given what I said above about taxonomic freedom and the Principle of Priority, it’s 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 I’m 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).

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’). Hoser’s 2013 article includes a full reprinting of the final formatted version of Kaiser et al. (2013) from Herpetological Review. Hm, something tells me you’re not allowed to do that. You’ll be pleased to hear that I get a brief mention: I’m referred to as a “serial spammer”, as “a close friend of [Mark] O’Shea” 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, it’s worse: I’m also close friends with Wolfgang Wüster, and above you can see the proof (in reality, I’ve met Mark and Wolfgang on, respectively, one and one occasions, but... whatever).

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 there’s 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 that’s 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 we’re 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 we’ve seen, are not created equal.

What about the Principle of Priority we looked at earlier? It’s 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 doesn’t 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 Hoser’s names and use the recommendations: it’s 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, Wüster 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 he’s 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 doesn’t know what the word really means.

Elsewhere in his life, Hoser’s constant battles with local law enforcement – a subject I’m not interested in here, of course – have led to his being found guilty of (and fined for) “scandalising the court”.

Then there’s the fact that he’s 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 you’ll find out if you check the wikipedia page on Hoser, he’s 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 Hoser’s works, take a look yourself since they’re 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 it’s known) has been mentioned or discussed on a few previous occasions on Tet Zoo. See…

Refs - -

Aplin, K. P. 1999. “Amateur” taxonomy in Australian herpetology – help or hindrance? Monitor 10 (2/3), 104-109.

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.

- . 2009. A reclassification of the rattlesnakes; species formerly exclusively referred to the genera Crotalus and Sistrurus. Australasian Journal of Herpetology 6, 1-21.

- . 2012a. A new genus of Asian snail-eating snake (Serpentes: Pareatidae). Australasian Journal of Herpetology 12, 12-14. [NOTE: the pdf linked to here is for the whole of AJH 12, and hence includes the articles cited here as 2012b-f as well.]

- . 2012b. The dissolution of the genus Rhadinophis Vogt, 1922 (Serpentes: Colubrinae). Australasian Journal of Herpetology 12, 16-17.

- . 2012c. A new genus and new subgenus of snakes from the South African region (Serpentes: Colubridae). Australasian Journal of Herpetology 12, 23-25.

- . 2012d. A review of the South American snake genera Leptodeira and Imantodes including three new genera and two new subgenera (Serpentes: Dipsadidae: Imantodini). Australasian Journal of Herpetology 12, 40-47.

- . 2012e. A review of the North American garter snakes genus Thamnophis Fitzinger, 1843 (Serpentes: Colubridae). Australasian Journal of Herpetology 12, 48-53.

- . 2012f. A review of the taxonomy of the European colubrid snake genera Natrix and Coronella, with the creation of three new monotypic genera (Serpentes: Colubridae). Australasian Journal of Herpetology 12, 58-62.

- . 2012g. A review of the taxonomy of the living crocodiles including the description of three new tribes, a new genus, and two new species. Australasian Journal of Herpetology 14, 9-16.

- . 2012h. Robust taxonomy and nomenclature based on good science escapes harsh fact-based criticism, but remains unable to escape an attack of lies and deception. Australasian Journal of Herpetology 14, 37-64.

- . 2013. The science of herpetology is built on evidence, ethics, quality publications and strict compliance with the rules of nomenclature. Australasian Journal of Herpetology 18, 2-79.

Hutchinson, M. N. 1988. Comments on the proposed suppression for nomenclature of three works by R. W. Wells and C. R. Wellington. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 45, 145.

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Iverson, J. B., Thomson, S. A. & Georges, A. 2001. Validity of taxonomic changes for turtles proposed by Wells and Wellington. Journal of Herpetology 35, 361-368.

Kaiser, H., Crother, B. I., Kelly, C. M. R., Luiselli, L., O’Shea, M., Ota, H., Passos, P. Schleip, W. & Wüster, W. 2013. Best practices: in the 21st Century, taxonomic decisions in herpetology are acceptable only when supported by a body of evidence and published via peer-review. Herpetological Review 44, 8-23.

King, M. & Miller, J. 1985. Letter to the editor. Herpetological Review 16, 4-5.

Pyron, R. A., Burbrink, F. T., Colli, G. R., Montes de Oca, A. N., Vitt, L. J., Kuczynski, C. A. & Wiens, J. J. 2011. The phylogeny of advanced snakes (Colubroidea), with discovery of a new subfamily and comparison of support methods for likelihood trees. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 58, 329-342.

Thulborn, T. 1986. Taxonomic tangles from Australia. Nature 321, 13-14.

Tyler, M. J. 1985. Nomenclature of the Australian herpetofauna: anarchy rules OK. Herpetological Review 16, 69.

- . 1988. Comments on the proposed suppression for nomenclature of three works by R. W. Wells and C. R. Wellington. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 45, 152.

Wallach, V. & Wüster, W., Broadley, D. G. 2009. In praise of subgenera: taxonomic status of cobras of the genus Naja Laurenti (Serpentes: Elapidae). Zootaxa 2236, 26-36.

Wells, R. W. & Wellington, C. R. 1983. A synopsis of the Class Reptilia in Australia. Australian Journal of Herpetology 1, 73-129.

- . & Wellington, C. R. 1985. A classification of the Amphibia and Reptilia of Australia. Australian Journal of Herpetology, Suppl. Ser. 1, 1-61.

Williams, D., Wüster, W. & Fry, B. G. 2006. The good, the bad and the ugly: Australian snake taxonomists and a history of the taxonomy of Australia’s venomous snakes. Toxicon 48, 919-930.

Wüster, W. & Bérnils, R. S. 2011. On the generic classification of the rattlesnakes, with special reference to the Neotropical Crotalus durissus complex (Squamata: Viperidae). Zoologia 28, 417-419.

- ., Bush, B., Keogh, J. S., O’Shea, M. & Shine, R. 2001. Taxonomic contributions in the “amateur” literature: comments on recent descriptions of new genera and species by Raymond Hoser. Litteratura Serpentium 21, 67-79, 86-91.