Two New Papers Criticize Proposal To Split Anolis

Last year, Nicholson et al. proposed splitting Anolis into eight genera in a paper in Zootaxa.  This idea was extensively debated in AA’s pages (e.g., 1,2,3 and links therein). Now, two papers have been published criticizing the methods and conclusions of Nicholson et al. and suggesting that the generic name Anolis be retained for the entire clade.

In a paper just published two days ago in Zootaxa, Steve Poe argues strongly against Nicholson et al.’s proposal on multiple grounds, primarily on the lack of demonstrated monophyly of most of the proposed genera. Poe concludes at the end of the introduction of the paper: “Nicholson et al. (2012) selectively adopted results of their own flawed, unstable, and conflicting analyses, selectively incorporated pertinent published data and results, and changed names for over 100 species that have never been included in a phylogenetic analysis. The proposed taxonomy is unnecessary and unwarranted according to standard taxonomic practice. It should not be adopted by the scientific or nonacademic communities.” The paper is only five pages long and is readily downloaded.

Meanwhile, within the past month, Castañeda and de Queiroz published a paper in the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology on phylogenetic relationships within the Dactyloa clade of anoles (pdf, supplementary material). The paper is a follow-up to their 2011 paper on Dactyloa, adding morphological data to the molecular dataset analyzed previously. We’ll have more on this paper soon, but the pertinent part for today is the “Note added in Proof” appended to the beginning of the paper. The authors explain “Shortly after our paper was accepted, Nicholson and colleagues published a phylogenetic analysis of anoles and a proposal to divide Anolis into eight genera… Here, we comment briefly on their study as it pertains to the phylogeny and taxonomy of the Dactyloa clade,” and then go on to criticize Nicholson et al.’s recognition of genera (in this case, Dactyloa) and species groups that are not monophyletic in their own analyses. Moreover, like Poe, Castañeda and de Queiroz present strong critiques of the Nicholson et al. methodology and analyses, concluding “Because our results are based on larger samples of Dactyloa species (for both molecular and morphological data), as well as larger samples of molecular data (with respect to both numbers of bases and numbers of gene fragments, and including both mitochondrial and nuclear genes), and because many of their taxonomic conclusions that differ from ours are either contradicted by their own results or unsubstantiated, we do not consider any of the differences between our phylogenetic results and taxonomic conclusions compared with those in the study by Nicholson et al. (2012) to warrant changes to our proposed taxonomy. In contrast to Nicholson et al. (2012), we refrain from assigning some species to series and treat some taxonomic assignments as tentative because of contradictory results or poorly supported inferences, and we present justifications for all taxonomic decisions pertaining to species not included in our analyses.”

The Castañeda and de Queiroz critique is only two pages long. Read ’em both and decide for yourself.

About Jonathan Losos

Professor and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. I've spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don't know.

14 thoughts on “Two New Papers Criticize Proposal To Split Anolis

  1. Excellent! Both agree with my assessments of 50 years ago based on morphology alone, before we had DNA data. I did recognize “morphogenera” like “Chameleolis” and “Phenacosaurus” because they looked so different, but “alpha” versus “beta” — no way.

  2. Both are very interesting reads. I am very happy to see that some published studies justly lambasting the Nicholson proposal. Also, Poe mentioned how absurd it is to elevate the cybotoids to a new genus so as to erect Norops. True!!

  3. Beyond the objective content discussed by Poe I salute his effort to creatively symbolize the Nicholson taxonomy to the recycled pop culture icons of Madonna and Lady Gaga. As a mere consumer of anole taxonomy this Introduction drew me in and made me want to read into the depths of his argument. I suggest that all AA readers also take the time to read these articles.

    “In 2012 we have Lady Gaga continuing Madonna’s tramp-diva legacy, TMZ filling Geraldo’s gossip-news niche, and an ostensibly new taxonomy of anoles from Nicholson et al. (2012). But just as Lady Gaga recycles Madonna and TMZ
    unnecessarily claims Geraldo’s old job, the anole taxonomy of 2012 doesn’t offer much that is new, and doesn’t improve much on something that was misguided and unfortunate in 1986.”

  4. The amazing thing about science is that it is in constant evolution. It´s great to read different papers with different points of view about the same subject. Both papers are very interesting to read and introduce good questions about the Anoles taxonomy. Particularly, I think that all this discussion is healthy and welcome to improve our knowledge about the subject. But I also think it should remains on the basis of education and ethics. After all, we are talking about science! And even though some good points are mentioned by S. Poe, I truly don´t know how the unnecessary sarcasm present in his article would positively contribute to this debate. Castañeda and de Queiroz critique, in the other hand, is a good example of how science must be: clear, consistent and respectful.

        1. Which were critical but bereft of snarky pop culture references. We can agree to disagree without invoking the likes of Gerardo and Madonna.

    1. Thanks for posting this, Annelise. I’m deeply concerned about the way anole researchers received the changes proposed by Nicholson et al. As a graduate student from a research group devoted not to anoles but to Herpetology (including amphibians), I find it very hard to understand the obscure, apparently personal motivations behind the arguments posed against Nicholson et al.’s work, which often (and even explicitly) lack any scientific groundings. I understand that a given taxonomic arrangement is nothing but a set of hypothesis to be tested – and therefore the taxonomic practice is inherently progressive. It would be cool to see people proposing improvements to anole taxonomy instead of evoking Lady Gaga or announcing personal satisfaction with ‘lambasting’ in science.

      1. It seems to me that there are strong personal motivations behind the revision of the anole phylogeny as well (e.g. a desire to see Norops designated a genus). But what needs to be, and is being, debated (ideally without snark or sarcasm) is whether either of the options are scientifically incorrect, and if not, which option would cause less disruption and greater scientific benefit to anole researchers. Both published responses to Nicholson et al.’s work make a great case in favour of keeping Anolis a single genus, one entirely without sarcasm. As unnecessary as it may be, I hope the sarcasm doesn’t prevent folks from taking Poe’s arguments seriously and that Castañeda and de Queiroz’s paper does not get painted with the same brush.

      2. I have heard many times that people think that there is a personal motivation for our paper in resurrecting Norops, but that is not the case. There is, however, differing philosophies towards how to best represent diversity, and what is best practices for taxonomy (among other things). There are also different views on if there should only be one way to construct classifications or more than one (e.g., classifications = phylogeny, versus ecological, behavioral, etc.). I would love to see our paper stimulate a productive discourse towards unifying scientists on such standards, and some important points came out in previous discussions when our paper came out. That line of discussion seems to have died out, and perhaps these rebuttals will stimulate something positive.

      3. Ivan—I’m deeply concerned about the approach proponents of the Nicholson et al. taxonomy have taken with regard to the science involved. Naming nonmonophyletic groups as separate genera is irresponsible. The diagnoses of the groups named in the paper are not useful for diagnosing the groups. There are many examples of a lack of scientific rigor that should concern anyone that is willing to look at the work objectively.

        The personal motivations you refer to—and are having a hard time understanding—have manifested themselves in repeated attempts to recognize Norops by a particular group of workers. Furthermore, many of the same critiques that prevented systematists from accepting the change in the past are still valid. When you combine that with other problems (like the naming of nonmonophyletic groups), a certain level of exasperation by anole researchers is to be expected.

        Those that are turned off by “snarky” pop culture references should at least consider the arguments posed by Poe, because they are valid and should not be ignored.

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