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What is Alpha taxonomy?


Alpha taxonomy (sometimes simply called taxonomy) aims to identify, describe, and name species, as well as to determine their valid scientific names, as some of names are incorrect, although they were used repeatedly.


A first example: Mullet, red or grey?

In some books and at the fishmongers, the name mullet is used for very different animals, belonging to distinct families. On one hand, the name "grey mullet" grey mullet (Mugil cephalus) has been applied to several species and genera, all belonging to the Mugilidae: Mugil cephalus L. 1758, Chelon labrosus (Risso, 1826), Liza aurata (Risso, 1826), Liza ramada (Risso, 1826), Liza saliens (Risso, 1826), Oedalechilus labeao (Cuvier, 1829) in European seas. On the other hand, the name "red mullet" applies to species that belong to the Mullidae, such as Mullus surmuletus L. 1758 red mullet (Mullus surmuletus).
These species differ by their morphology, their anatomy, their biology, the taste and refinedness of their flesh. However, their shared vernacular ("common") names can lead to confusions. The scientific names ("latin names") help to avoid these problems, but sometimes researchers have to go back to the original first descriptions and to the origins of the names in order to determine how to name appropriately these species.

A second example: What name for my sole? Dover sole (Solea solea)

According to works and authors, the Dover sole present at the fishmongers has been successively called: Pleuronectes solea, Solea vulgaris and Solea solea.
Each of these names is composed of two parts: the first word is the genus name, here Pleuronectes or Solea, the second is species name, here solea or vulgaris.
The fact that there are three names might lead to think that these are three distinct species, but it is not so in this case. The alpha taxonomist studies specimens, reads carefully publications and original descriptions in order to give the correct scientific name, also called valid name. Pleuronectes solea and Solea vulgaris are invalid names, as they were already used (for another species, elsewhere) or badly defined. Solea solea is the valid scientific name of the Dover sole.

There is the  same problem for several fished acanthomorph species. Turbot is one of these:

Turbot Turbot (poisson plat) Scophthalmus maximus, wrongly named Psetta maxima during many years [more information in Bailly et Chanet (2010)].

A third example: The identification of specimens

During scientific expeditions, animals are sampled. The alpha taxonomist identifies them, compares them to prior studies and specimens, and sometimes describes and names new species.

Cans full of fishes conserved in alcool Specimen identification
Containers full of fishes conserved in alcool and specimen identification.

The activity of the taxonomist, with these three aspects, is far from minor. It is fundamental to our knowledge on the many species present on Earth. Scientific names allow researchers to designate precisely the species they are working on. Reconstructing the history of names, establishing what presently valid name corresponds to a name found in a study from the XVIII° century, or determining that a species lives in a precise location are important and fundamental steps to gather data on the geographical or bathymetric distribution, the morphology and the anatomy of this species. In other words, it is about designating accurately the species we are talking about.