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Slender armed seastar image from en.Wikipedia article about the organism

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Let’s look at some older bad science. After my response to  a commentator about why I am focusing on the WikiCup contest, I want to show that a long line of Do You Knows, Good Articles, and probably even Featured Articles in natural sciences and geology have made it to the main page of Wikipedia and then been left in their horrid state for a long time.

Luidia clathrata was okayed as a DYK for the main page of en.Wikipedia on 31 January 2012 with this revision. It contains original research and a fundamental mistake in taxonomic nomenclature that the editor continues to make today. It is the level of mistake that any high school biology student would already have learned not to make.


“In 1777, Pennant described a species of starfish that he named Asterias clathrata. This means that the specific name later given to Luidia clathrata by Say in 1825 was a junior homonym under the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature and consequently invalid. However, it was later determined that Asterias clathrata was a synonym of Asterias rubensLinnaeus, 1758, and this resulted in the specific name “clathrata” being no longer in use. In 1982, A. M. Clark proposed the name Asterias clathrata be suppressed by the ICZN to allow the name Luidia clathrata to become valid.[2]

The entire paragraph is referenced to a synonymous taxon on WoRMS, the World Register of Marine Species. Asterias clathrata Pennant, 1777. A species of starfish named by Welsh naturalist, Thomas Pennant. The paragraph could be better written, we could use Pennant’s full name, say he was a Welsh naturalist, make it a complete article that doesn’t require clicking on the link:

In 1777, Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant described a species of starfish and named it Asterias clathrata.

But, whatever, right? So, let’s move into the next sentence:

“This means that the specific name later given to Luidia clathrata by Say in 1825 was a junior homonym under the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature and consequently invalid.”

Okay, so, in 1777 Pennant named a starfish. In 1825 American naturalist, Thomas Say gave a specific name to a starfish, Luidia clathrata, and, because Pennant described a species of starfish, Asterias clathrata,  in 1777, this means that Say, giving a specific name to a different species, created a junior homonym under rules of taxonomic literature for animals, the ICZN.

So, one guy described and named a starfish in 1777. Another guy gave a specific name to a starfish in 1825, thus creating a junior homonym .

Is this true? Am I going to explain rules of taxonomic literature to you? No, it’s not true; and, no, I’m not going to explain. I’m not a taxonomist. However, any high school or college student who has taken just one introductory biology course knows exactly what is wrong with this.

First, what is a specific name

“The specific name in zoological nomenclature (also: specific epithet or species epithet) is the second part (the second name) within the name of a species (a binomial). The first part of the name of a species is the name of the genus or the generic name.”

What did Say do, then? He gave a specific name to Luidia clathrata in 1825. Can you give something a specific name? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I think you can name a genus, and I think you can name a species. However, a specific name is actually not specific. You can have hundreds of genera with the same specific name; the specific name is often descriptive or geographic or an honorific. The specific name is, indeed, the second part of the name of a species. And, this is what Say names; he named a species. This is also what Pennant names; he described and named a species.

Let me repeat; Say did not created a junior synonym by giving a specific name to Luidia clathrata. You can’t “give a specific name” to a species; you name a species, and, as anyone who has taken high school or college introductory biology knows, a species has a binomial name consisting of two parts, the genus name and the specific name. The genus name by itself names a taxon, the genus. The specific name by itself does not name a species; it is the two part binomial that names at taxon, the species. 

And, a homonym, in biology, is the name of a taxon.

This is what WoRMS has to say in a note about the names:

“Note FROM EDITOR OR GLOBAL SPECIES DATABASE Checked: verified by a taxonomic editor

Taxonomy A synonym of Asterias rubens Linnaeus, 1758 according to Sladen (1889) but proposed by A.M. Clark (1982) for suppression by the ICZN as a senior homonym of A. clathrata Say, 1825. [details]”

From this, the en.Wikipedia editor, decided, guessed, threw whatever in to the article, and because both names have the same specific name, the editor decided that this was what the synonymy was about. 

WoRMS however, on this very page, linked in the article about Asterias clathrata Pennant, 1777, says that the accepted name for this taxon is Asterias rubens Linnaeus, 1758. So, how come the en.Wikipedia article on Luidia clathrata, has a paragraph on taxonomy that is linked to the WoRMS page on Asterias clathrata? This WoRMS page doesn’t even mention the genus Luidia

Revision history at WoRMS?

2004-12-21 15:54:05Z created Hansson, Hans
2008-12-31 03:51:57Z changed Mah, Christopher

So, what did Ailsa M. Clark have to say about Luidia clathrata? A Google books peak shows this:

*clathrata Pennant 1777, as stated above, a synonym of Asterias rubens;

clathrata Say, 1825, see Luidia (Luidiidae, see part I)

Page 249 is not visible in this peak, but it appears as if both Pennant in 1777, and Say in 1825, named a starfish Asterias clathrata, and that Pennant’s 1777 discovery was a synonym of Asterias rubens, and Say’s 1825 discovery belongs to the genus Luidia. It appears that the junior homonym was Asterias clathrata, and it was invalid, because this taxon name had already been used by Pennant; it is not the that Say gave his organism the same specific name; he gave his organism the same name.

Or, maybe that’s not right; maybe the ICZN does not allow repetition of specific epithets within a family or something? So, here’s the en.Wikipedia dope on specific epithets from the article on binomials:

“Whereas the first part of a binomial name must be unique within a kingdom, the second part is quite commonly used in two or more genera (as is shown by examples of hodgsoniiabove). The full binomial name must be unique within a kingdom.”

And the ICZN:

“53.3. Homonyms in the species group. Two or more available species-group names having the same spelling are homonyms if they were originally established in combination with the same generic name (primary homonymy), or when they are subsequently published in combination with the same generic name (secondary homonymy) (for species-group names combined with homonymous generic names see Article 57.8.1).

Example. Cancer strigosus Linnaeus, 1761 and Cancer strigosus Herbst, 1799 were established for different nominal species in the nominal genus Cancer Linnaeus, 1758, and the specific names are therefore primary homonyms. For an example of secondary homonymy see Article 57.3.1.”

“primary homonym
Each of two or more identical specific or subspecific names established for different nominal taxa and originally combined with the same generic name [Art. 57.2]. For variant spellings deemed to be identical see Article 58.”

This does not seem to account for the type of homonyms in the en.Wikipedia article:

“However, it was later determined that Asterias clathrata was a synonym of Asterias rubensLinnaeus, 1758, and this resulted in the specific name “clathrata” being no longer in use. In 1982, A. M. Clark proposed the name Asterias clathrata be suppressed by the ICZN to allow the name Luidia clathrata to become valid.[2]

So, the organism described and named Asterias clathrata was not really A. clathrata; Percy Sladen recognized in 1888 that this name must be treated as a synonym for Asterias rubens, Linneaus. This freed up the specific name “clathratafor use in the genus Asterias? How does this free up “clathrata” for use with Luidia

I don’t know. I don’t know why this article is talking about Asterias clathrata. Is this a closely related organism? Were seastars once more lumped than they are now? It’s easier to be a splitter with molecular phylogenies than just morphological information. What does any of this have to do with the naming of this animal?  Was Pennant describing the common seastar and mistakenly thought it was something less common? What does the specific name Say gave to the slender armed seastar have to do with the species name of the common seastar? Why does the genus Asterias decide what specific names can be used in the genus Luidia?

Inquiring minds would like to know; but they won’t find any of this information no matter how much they search en.Wikipedia. If the article had been written without this information, it would have been denied DYK status as an incomplete article, or maybe that is good article status. The editor simply copied and pasted and then guessed that because the specific names were the same this was where the homonyms were; but the ICZN does not appear to cover specific names as homonyms; it covers species homonyms. 

Once more, reading an en.Wikipedia science article leads to nothing but confusion and unanswerable questions because it was written by someone who has no fundamental understanding of biology; and that is all it would take to have cleared this up; there are taxonomists who submit articles to en.Wikipedia and generously answer questions so that editors can present clear, readable, understandable articles to a general audience. That did not happen in this case; instead we have an announcement of specific name synonyms.