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ANNIE MINOFF: Just a heads-up, this week's episode includes some salty language that you would not usually hear on the radio.
ELAH FEDER: Sensitive listeners, young listeners, you've been warned.
[BOAT MOTOR, WIND]
ELAH FEDER: Why turtles? Why were you into turtles?
TRAVIS THOMAS: I don't know. They're just really cool. They-- they're kind of neat animals.
ELAH FEDER: So Annie, I was in Florida a few months ago.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: And that was me on a boat out on the Suwannee River trying to get Travis Thomas to explain to me what is so special about turtles. Travis is doing a PhD on turtles. He's been chasing them since he was a kid. And I just wanted to know, like, why did you choose these animals?
TRAVIS THOMAS: They have shells, which is kind of cool, you know, for vertebrates to have shells.
ELAH FEDER: But I wasn't really satisfied with this answer, so eventually I try this. Do you think you connect to turtles because they, too, are mellow?
TRAVIS THOMAS: You think I'm just mellow, huh?
ELAH FEDER: I don't think Travis really likes being called mellow. Sorry, Travis. But it was his ability to keep his cool that really struck me talking to him about this thing that happened to him a few years ago. So it started in 2013. Travis was a grad student at the University of Florida, studying--
ANNIE MINOFF: Turtles?
ELAH FEDER: Yes. And in 2013, he thought he was on the verge of a major scientific honor. He and his team were about to declare not one, but two new species of turtle. This is something they'd been working on for years, and finally--
TRAVIS THOMAS: We were at the finish line. We were at the goal line. We were formatting a draft manuscript.
ELAH FEDER: And as lead author, Travis was going to get to name those two new species of turtle. Give these species names that would live on into scientific eternity, more or less. But then, one day, he gets an email from one of his mentors.
ANNIE MINOFF: This is how all bad stories begin-- with an email.
ELAH FEDER: They start with emails. Yeah. And this email says, basically, have you seen this thing? There's a PDF attached. Travis opens it up. And it's a paper about alligator snapping turtles-- the turtles that he is studying.
ANNIE MINOFF: So he got scooped.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. Which, you know, this is a thing that happens in science. Sometimes--
ANNIE MINOFF: And journalism.
ELAH FEDER: And journalism. People get scooped. It sucks. You have to just deal with it and move on. This was a little different. Like, there were a few things that didn't really make sense to Travis about this paper. The descriptions of the animals didn’t really match what he had seen. But this was even stranger for Travis. There was no method section, there was no results section. Basically, this paper did not describe any new scientific evidence. And then there was the author.
TRAVIS THOMAS: We sort of knew everybody that was working on alligator snapping turtles. It's a really small group.
ELAH FEDER: But this author? Total mystery. His name was Raymond Hoser. Email address? email@example.com.
ANNIE MINOFF: Travis didn't know who the Snake Man was, but other herpetologists-- people who study reptiles and amphibians-- they knew. Raymond Hoser, a.k.a. The Snake Man, is an amateur taxonomist in Australia who's named over 1,000 animals. Over 1,000. Mostly snakes. Also lizards, the occasional turtle. Other herpetologists have accused him of flooding their field with shoddy work, even plagiarizing.
ELAH FEDER: But in 2013, Travis still didn't know any of this. All he knew was that he had been scooped by a very weird paper. And that this meant somebody else was going to get to name his turtles, which, for Travis, after all these years of work, it was devastating. He was on the verge of quitting science over this.
TRAVIS THOMAS: You know, I wanted this more than anything. And then, to have something like this happen, you know, caused me to lose confidence and question my abilities. But that only lasted for a little bit because then I got angry.
ANNIE MINOFF: I'm Annie.
ELAH FEDER: And I'm Elah. And today, on "Undiscovered," Travis decides to turn his anger into action, and get those turtles back.
ANNIE MINOFF: And we try to figure out who the heck this Snake Man is, and how an amateur taxonomist managed to beat professional scientists at their own game.
ELAH FEDER: To be clear, Travis did not discover these turtles he was about to name in 2013. Alligator snapping turtles, we've known about them for a long time because they're pretty hard to miss.
[ALEXA AND ELAH GASPING]
TRAVIS THOMAS: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: Whoa.
ALEXA LIM: Whoa.
ELAH FEDER: Our producer, Alexa, and I, went to Cedar Key, Florida, to visit Travis. And that was the sound of him fishing an alligator snapping turtle out of a rubber tub on his back porch--a female alligator snapping turtle. She was huge. This turtle-- if I had to describe her, I would say she looked like a giant boulder with a head and a tail and legs. This is so incredibly heavy. Travis let me hold her.
TRAVIS THOMAS: Don't panic if she-- just keep that firm grip.
ALEXA LIM: You sound not panicky.
ELAH FEDER: I'm fine. I panicked. This turtle, she looked mad. Her mouth was wide open like she’s ready to snap at us. This is the sound of her massive claws scratching the floor.
So Travis did not discover these monstrous alligator snapping turtles. What he did was actually a lot harder than that. We used to think of alligator snapping turtles-- Macrochelys temminckii is the scientific name. We used to think they were all just one species. Travis's team tried to prove they were actually three very similar-looking species that we'd lumped together.
ANNIE MINOFF: So what we had thought of as one species, now they're saying it should be three.
ELAH FEDER: Exactly. Which means we have two bonus species now. Two more than we thought we had before. And to show this, this was actually a ton of work. A lot of it very hot, sticky work on rivers, where they had to set traps, leave them overnight, check in the next morning, and collect some very angry turtles.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, gosh.
ELAH FEDER: They also were out examining museum specimens, measuring shells and heads, and extracting DNA. All of this to try to show that the different populations of these turtles were actually distinct enough to count as separate species. So what strikes Travis, back in 2013, when he's looking at this paper that scooped him, is there's none of that. What there is? Half a page on local government corruption in Australia.
ANNIE MINOFF: Not exactly your standard fare--
ELAH FEDER: No.
ANNIE MINOFF: --for a science journal.
ELAH FEDER: So Travis decides, you know, there's something up with this journal. So he looks it up.
TRAVIS THOMAS: And it didn't take long for me to find some strange things that were going on with the journal.
ELAH FEDER: The Australasian Journal of Herpetology. There are a few strange, atypical things. So first, the website where this journal is hosted, it looks like one of those old GeoCities sites with all the animated GIFs. This one has-- on the home page, there is an animated GIF of dripping blood at the top. And the URL is smuggle.com.
TRAVIS THOMAS: Sounds like something you're going to get a virus on your computer.
ELAH FEDER: For the record, we visited smuggle.com plenty of times, no issues. Anyway, it turns out at this very official-sounding Australasian Journal of Herpetology, the Snake Man, a.k.a. Raymond Hoser, is the publisher, the editor, and the sole contributor.
ANNIE MINOFF: So it's a self-published journal.
ELAH FEDER: It's a self-published journal. And so the question is, who is this guy publishing it?
RAYMOND HOSER: Snake Man here, with my favorite snake. It is a death adder, of course. Anyway, here's me. There's my hand. Watch. No sticks, no tongs. I pick the snake up in my hand. Sorry ‘bout that. And I kiss it. Watch.
Well, the story is, if you're nice to your snakes, they probably won't bite.
ELAH FEDER: This is the guy who scooped Travis. Raymond Hoser, a.k.a. The Snake Man, if you look Raymond up on the internet, there's a lot. Tons of YouTube videos, where he's posted things like feeding snakes, or kissing them, or teaching people how to trap them with what looks like a squeegee mop.
These are pretty entertaining videos. He is energetic, he's playful. Sometimes he's shirtless. Basically, Raymond is an Australian reptile guy. If you've got a snake on the loose, you can call Raymond's company, Snake Busters. He will come catch it for you. Or if you want a reptile party for a group of kids--
--Raymond has you covered.
Raymond's trademark move is actually to flip party-goers upside down and spin them around. It looks like so much fun to me.
ANNIE MINOFF: You are on your own with that one.
ELAH FEDER: Anyway, back in 2013, Travis is looking at this journal. He talks it over with people. And he's not really that worried anymore. He figures he's going to get to name these turtles after all. I mean, this is a self-published paper. There is no new scientific evidence in it. Like, he figures it's not going to be a problem.
But when he goes to finally publish his turtle paper in the journal Zootaxa, to finally claim these turtles, the journal tells him, actually, he does have a problem. It's actually a problem that zoologists have been dealing with for almost 200 years, and it goes all the way back to this one guy-- Hugh Strickland.
ANNIE MINOFF: Picture this. England, 1834. A well-to-do young gentleman, Hugh Strickland, is reading a scientific journal, and he's furious. So Hugh, who I like to imagine has mutton chops and a silk cravat--
ELAH FEDER: Ah.
ANNIE MINOFF: --because--
ELAH FEDER: That's what people looked like back then.
ANNIE MINOFF: Obviously. Anyway, Hugh is getting all worked up because someone in the scientific journal has had the nerve to suggest renaming a bird.
ELAH FEDER: The outrage.
ANNIE MINOFF: So this writer is suggesting changing the name of this bird, the Bullfinch, to the coal-hood, scientific name Densirostra atricapilla. And Hugh snaps. Because, like, whatever the name is fine. But these renaming shenanigans have gotten way out of control. It's like it's trendy to rename animals, you know? Sometimes people think they're helping. Other times, it's clear they're just ego-tripping.
ELAH FEDER: Like, how cool would it be for me to name an animal, and have everybody use that name?
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. Great for your legacy. For zoology, on the other hand, this is total chaos. Like, according to Hugh, people had been so eager to pin their names on animals that, sometimes, these animals were walking around with, like, eight different scientific names. It's just-- it's completely confusing. So Hugh has this idea-- this radical idea. We pick a name, and we stick to it. One species, one name.
ELAH FEDER: It is brilliant. That is a brilliant idea.
ANNIE MINOFF: It's a good idea. Hugh gets other scientists on board. They adopt this as, like, their cardinal rule. Now, today, zoologists have added a lot more rules to that rule. There's 200 pages of naming rules written out in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. This, like, giant packet of legalese-- 18 chapters, two appendices. But at the heart of all this verbiage is still the central rule-- Hugh's rule. The first name published sticks. And they call this the principle of priority.
ELAH FEDER: Problem solved.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. Mostly. You know, except over the centuries, there have been a few people who have tested the outer limits of this rule. Like Francis Walker and Peter Cameron, prolific insect namers, zoologists called their work shoddy and careless. Didn't matter. They got there first. Botany, same problem. Constantine Rafinesque named thousands of plants, and was so vague in his descriptions that people didn't even know what plants he was talking about. Didn't matter. Got there first.
The thing is, you can criticize these guys all you want-- and people at the time definitely did-- but the code, Hugh Strickland's rules for naming species, it's on their side. Principle of priority.
ELAH FEDER: And today, we have zoologists worked up about Raymond Hoser, or, as one critic put it, the Raymond Hoser problem. They call what he does taxonomic vandalism, like he's vandalizing their tidy classification system. And that is the more polite criticism that I've seen. I have read some things on herpetology forums that, frankly, I do not want to repeat here.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah, probably for the best. But it wasn't always like this.
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: For quite a number of years, I can't say that Mr. Hoser was a friend, but he was an acquaintance. We were on good terms.
ANNIE MINOFF: Robert Sprackland studies monitor lizards. And in the late '90s, he's in Sydney at this herpetology conference. He's just given a talk, and he's chatting with some fellow scientists.
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: The next thing is this guy comes bopping over with a lot of enthusiasm. And my initial response was, you know, kind of a teenager or a college student.
ANNIE MINOFF: Spoiler, it's Raymond. And he wants to pose for pictures with everybody.
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: With everybody there that was kind of like a herpetological-- in his eyes, herpetological dignitary.
ANNIE MINOFF: But Robert still has no clue who this guy is.
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: You know, I finally get to the point and say, wait, wait, wait. Who are you? And he said, I'm Ray Hoser. We've been corresponding.
ANNIE MINOFF: And he's like, oh, you. Right. A decade earlier, Raymond had written a book about the reptiles and frogs of Australia, which Robert had seen, thought it actually was pretty good, and so they started corresponding. And at the time they meet in 1999 at that conference in Sydney, Raymond has just gotten into the naming game. He doesn't have his own bespoke journal yet.
He starts off slow. Names just seven new species of snake, to start off, in a herpetological society journal. And at this point, he's just Ray Hoser. He's not the so-called Raymond Hoser problem.
But it's around this time that trouble starts brewing. A few scientists put out papers criticizing Raymond's work. These papers say, yeah, like, he's technically meeting the standards for the code, but he's not doing good science. You know, he's sloppy with his animal descriptions. We are fine with amateurs, but there needs to be quality control.
But Raymond says, look, I'm following the rules. That's what should count. And then he kicks it up a notch. Pretty soon, starts publishing his own journal, the one we heard of-- the Australasian Journal of Herpetology. And that's when he really starts pumping out those names.
Robert Sprackland stays out of all of this, for the most part, until he basically can't anymore. About 10 years after he meets Raymond in person for the first time, he hears about this new naming controversy. Everybody's talking about it. What's happened is Raymond Hoser just named a new species of spitting cobra. And this genus? Raymond's named it Spracklandus, after him. He is Robert Sprackland.
So on the one hand, getting an animal named after you in biology, it's a big deal. It's an honor. To Robert, the choice of animal was a little bit amusing.
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: Of all the snakes to name after me, the spitting cobra. I'm not quite pathological about it, but I'm a very fastidious person. And the idea of spitting is rather revolting to me. So it's like, you got the wrong snake, fella.
ANNIE MINOFF: But still, you know, it's an honor. But the arguments around the species name online, they're getting really heated. And it gets uglier over the years. People call Raymond's journal a vanity publication. They call what he's doing taxonomic, not vandalism, but taxonomic terrorism. Raymond responds that his opponents are liars. He even compares them to ISIS.
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: It turned into a degeneration. It was a wild animal fight in the mud.
ANNIE MINOFF: The way Robert remembers it, he tries to talk Raymond down, but Raymond doesn't listen, and they stop corresponding.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. So it had been a while, but I was still planning to contact Raymond Hoser. And so my question for Robert was, what would you want to ask him?
ROBERT SPRACKLAND: My first question would be, you know, Ray, was this worth it? Couldn't you have used that energy and the knowledge to something more positive? And you know, was it worth this?
ELAH FEDER: And Travis was wondering the same thing. You know, he kept saying to us, Raymond is clearly a very smart guy.
TRAVIS THOMAS: He could be doing really good work. He can write. He's super efficient at what he does. Yeah. You know, come work with us.
ELAH FEDER: So both Travis and Robert wanted to know why? Like, why does Raymond do this? I mean, he's making all these enemies. Publishing names is not exactly a lucrative business.
ANNIE MINOFF: No.
ELAH FEDER: Right. So what is the point of all this? We wanted to know that, too. After the break, we call the Snake Man.
So a few months ago, we decided it was time to contact Raymond Hoser.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: I read some very critical articles about him. And of course, we wanted to get his side of the story. I emailed him twice, no response. But the Australasian Journal of Herpetology does list a number. And so one night, our producer, Alexa, and I decided to just go ahead and call him. OK.
ALEXA LIM: [INAUDIBLE]
ELAH FEDER: OK. We are recording. We are recording. So we were a little nervous.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: I'd read some of the things that Raymond had written online. Some of it wasn't so nice itself. And he hadn't responded to our email, so I had no idea if he actually wanted to talk to us.
RAYMOND HOSER: Hello, how can I help you?
ELAH FEDER: Oh, hi, is this Raymond Hoser?
RAYMOND HOSER: Speaking. How can I help?
ELAH FEDER: Hi, my name is Elah. Raymond didn't remember our emails. He said he gets way too many of them, too much spam. And also, a ridiculous number of phone calls.
RAYMOND HOSER: Sorry to be a pain in the rear end. I've just got an incoming call.
ELAH FEDER: Oh, OK.
RAYMOND HOSER: Can I just put you on hold for one moment there?
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, go ahead.
RAYMOND HOSER: I'll put you on hold for one minute. I will come back because I've been playing cat and mouse with these people. Just bear with me.
ELAH FEDER: Sure. This went on for an hour and a half. I think he got about 10 calls in that time.
ANNIE MINOFF: Ha!
ELAH FEDER: Calls for Snakebusters. He even got a call to go catch a snake that was loose in a psychiatric prison.
ANNIE MINOFF: No.
ELAH FEDER: Which he did, while he was on the phone with us. He got off for about 10 minutes while he was in and out, came back. I guess business is pretty good for snake catching.
ANNIE MINOFF: Really?
ELAH FEDER: But in between, Raymond did manage to tell us that we had this story completely backwards.
RAYMOND HOSER: I'm 55 years old. I've been working scientifically with reptiles my entire life, and I've been made out to be some sort of feral, bloody, rogue taxonomist, which is complete and utter bullshit.
ELAH FEDER: According to Raymond, no, naming all of these animals is not some kind of attack on herpetologists. So why does he do it?
RAYMOND HOSER: I'll tell you the simplest reason. I told you I'm an animal lover, right? Wildlife conservation.
ELAH FEDER: Wildlife conservation. Raymond says, if you want to conserve a species, first step, you have to know it exists and give it a name. Nobody cares about unnamed species 12578, right? You need a name before people care. And so far, we've named something like 1.5 million species, which is great. Except there are an estimated up to 12 million species on this planet.
ANNIE MINOFF: Wow.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. So there's a lot of work to do. Raymond, from his perspective, he is just doing his part to address a pretty serious problem. And yet, all these herpetologists are mad at him.
RAYMOND HOSER: There's nothing wrong with my science. The only thing wrong with what I do is they don't like the fact that I'm first.
ELAH FEDER: Basically, Raymond is saying they're being sore losers, right? And the other thing he'll tell you is that what he does, it actually-- it's a lot of work. Like, the part where you discover the new species, that is not even the hard part, according to Raymond. Like--
ANNIE MINOFF: Really?
ELAH FEDER: So for example, with alligator snapping turtles, he says it was completely obvious that they were separate species. You didn't need to do a bunch of--
ANNIE MINOFF: Obviously.
ELAH FEDER: Obviously. The hard part, according to Raymond, you know, comes next, where you have to comb through two centuries of literature to make sure that, in fact, no one has already named this species. And then, once he's done that, Raymond then compiles everything that's known about this species. So like, in that paper that scooped Travis, Raymond has counted over 200 citations. And talking to him, I definitely started to feel sympathetic. Like, people are calling him an amateur, trying to declare his name as invalid.
But I hadn't forgotten about Travis, obviously. Like, I told Raymond about how Travis had put in all this work, how devastated he was. How he almost quit science after Raymond scooped him.
RAYMOND HOSER: Well, mate, if he's a-- he should quit science because he's a fucking crook.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. See, Raymond is actually mad at Travis because of what Travis and his team did a year after Raymond's paper came out.
So if you remember, after the journal, Zootaxa, told Travis he couldn't publish his paper, he was on the verge of giving up. But pretty quickly, he decides, like, no, I am going to get these turtles back.
TRAVIS THOMAS: I believe it was Paul Moler-
ELAH FEDER: One of Travis's teammates.
TRAVIS THOMAS: --who said, you know, looking at this, we know it's not scientific. There has to be a mistake somewhere. Find his mistake.
ELAH FEDER: So you know, according to Travis, Raymond had gotten some of the animal descriptions wrong. But those kinds of mistakes don't matter in the code. Raymond, like we said, had Hugh Strickland's big rule on his side-- priority. He published first.
But the code has actually gotten way more complicated than in Hugh Strickland's time. It's now over 200 pages of legalese. And so Travis and his team thought, maybe there's something in the rest of those 200 pages that Raymond did mess up.
ANNIE MINOFF: So they start digging, going down a checklist of fiddly little requirements that the code has. And it seems like Raymond has ticked his boxes. But they keep searching.
TRAVIS THOMAS: We had no clue. I mean, we were at the point, it was sort of desperation.
ELAH FEDER: But then they started thinking about something called the type specimen.
TRAVIS THOMAS: This was, like, the last sort of avenue to travel down.
ANNIE MINOFF: For years, even back in the days of Hugh Strickland, the way it worked if you wanted to name a new species was you would write up your paper, saying, I have found this new thing. This animal's, like, yay big, nocturnal, striped tail, bandit mask. I call it raccoon. Scientific name, Procyon lotor.
ELAH FEDER: OK.
ANNIE MINOFF: And if you're wondering what this new species looks like, I've actually killed a raccoon for you.
ELAH FEDER: Thank you.
ANNIE MINOFF: And-- you're welcome-- I'm going to put it in this museum so that, you know, your children can visit it. And it's going to be this shining example of raccoon kind. This is my type specimen. Except sometimes, these days, scientists do something a little different. Occasionally, instead of killing the animal and putting it in the museum, they'll just take a picture of it and let the animal live.
TRAVIS THOMAS: And this is really good for, you know, rare and endangered species, right? Because we don't want to be out in the field, and collecting and euthanizing endangered species. We can just take a picture of them, and it goes into the database, just like a preserved specimen would.
ELAH FEDER: So this is where Travis and his team think that Raymond might have slipped up, the type specimen. Raymond got his type specimens from the University of Florida's collection. This is, of course, the same university where Travis--
ANNIE MINOFF: Right. Small turtle world.
ELAH FEDER: --studies. Anyway, the university has a bunch of alligator snapping turtle specimens that, you know, people had collected over 100 years. They're just sitting on shells, you know, preserved. So when Raymond was ready to write up his paper and declare his new species, what he does is he finds this collection's online database. And all he had to do was just pick one of these alligator snapping turtles and say, that is my type specimen. List it in his paper.
ANNIE MINOFF: That sounds easy. Just do it online.
ELAH FEDER: Yes. But, tricky part. The online database that lists a ton of these turtles. Most of them are not real. They're photos. And this database--
TRAVIS THOMAS: It doesn't tell you whether it's a specimen or a photograph. Or at least, it used to not.
ELAH FEDER: OK. So it turns out, the two turtles that Raymond picked as his type specimens were actually both photos, which is big.
ANNIE MINOFF: Or incredibly small.
ELAH FEDER: It seems small. But it is actually big. Because the code cares a lot about proper form.
ANNIE MINOFF: Ah, yeah.
ELAH FEDER: And this was just the kind of thing that could be a violation. It could even, maybe, get Raymond's names invalidated.
ANNIE MINOFF: So Travis wins because Raymond's type specimens were photos.
ELAH FEDER: Almost, but not quite. So since this is the code, it's, of course, a little more complicated.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh.
ELAH FEDER: Sorry. Photos--
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, god.
ELAH FEDER: --are allowed. But it seems like you have to say that's what you're doing in your paper, that you're using a photo of a type specimen in your paper. It's actually not a rule that's written in the code, but we've had near-Talmudic discussions with code experts on this, and the general interpretation was you can use a photo as long as you say that's what you're doing, which Raymond did not. Because he didn't know it was a photo. He hasn't even seen it, which he freely admitted to us.
RAYMOND HOSER: Have I seen the photo? No.
ELAH FEDER: So I was curious to see these photos. I mean, these were the photos that Travis and his team were using to try to invalidate Raymond's names. So I asked the museum to email them to me. And--
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: Like, I wasn't expecting much. Just, basically, a photo of a turtle, right? And one of these was just that. It was a photo of a turtle sitting in some grass with its big, wide-open aggression mouth. But the other photo? So I open it up, and I do-- I see a turtle. But holding that turtle is a person. And that person is Travis. Travis--
ANNIE MINOFF: No.
ELAH FEDER: --had just caught it. He's standing by a river holding this big turtle, and he has this huge smile on his face. It's kind of like he's posing in a victory shot.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, my god.
ELAH FEDER: So this photo that might have cost Raymond these turtles, Travis had submitted it to the university. It was just, like, one of the many turtles that he'd caught out on his field trips. And that was it. After months of sleuthing, looking for Raymond's crucial mistake, the journal Zootaxa agrees to publish Travis's paper. Like, he'd finally crossed that finish line.
TRAVIS THOMAS: It was quite the relief. Jumping up and down kind of relief. We sort of stuck to our guns on this one and, you know, fought the good fight.
ELAH FEDER: It actually wasn't completely smooth sailing from there. Just a year after Travis publishes, some other scientists say that one of his species doesn't count. It's not different enough to count as its own species. So he loses that one. And actually, side note, Raymond was a bit closer to the mark on this one.
ANNIE MINOFF: Ah.
ELAH FEDER: He just called it a subspecies. But Travis's other species does hold up. And that species, by the way, Raymond had decided to call Macrochelys maxhoseri after his cousin, Max.
ANNIE MINOFF: That's kind of a sweet gesture.
ELAH FEDER: It is a sweet gesture. The journal wasn't calling it that. They were going with Travis's name, which was Macrochelys suwanniensis after the Suwannee River, where these turtles live and where Travis had grown up. And Travis's family is super proud. They tell everyone about this.
TRAVIS THOMAS: Yeah, it's super embarrassing sometimes. Well, they're just like, you know, he named a turtle, just out of the blue. You know, my son named a turtle. You know, it's just like, come on.
ANNIE MINOFF: So this story has a happy ending for Travis. But at the same time, how this all got resolved, it's not exactly satisfying. You know, like Travis won because of a technicality that isn't even written in the code. I mean--
ELAH FEDER: It's a pretty minor technicality. Yeah.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. It has nothing to do with the fact that he and his team members spent years collecting all of this genetic data, all this morphological data. It's just that--
ELAH FEDER: This is not a big win for science.
ANNIE MINOFF: No.
ELAH FEDER: The code hasn't changed. And Raymond was pissed about this. We called him a second time, and he told us, he was first, and his names were still taken away. He basically felt picked on.
RAYMOND HOSER: Yeah, Raymond's in Australia. We can just-- he's a weak target. You know, I'm not associated with Harvard. I don't come from a prestigious institute.
ELAH FEDER: And Raymond's completely right about this. None of that should matter. Raymond should have the same shot as anyone else, as long as he's following the rules.
RAYMOND HOSER: When you have different rules for different people, you have an absolute disaster, whether it's police, whether it's road rules, whether it's scientific rules. You have to have the same rules apply to everybody. Whether you like them, whether you hate them, they have to have the same rules.
ELAH FEDER: Like of course you do. But recently, some scientists have started to wonder if these are really the rules that they want to enforce. Rules that favor being first above anything else. And it's gotten so bad that they are talking about applying different rules to different people. Like when this whole debacle happened, with the spitting cobras that Raymond had named after--
ANNIE MINOFF: Spracklandus.
ELAH FEDER: --Spracklandus, after Robert Sprackland, there were a lot of comments back and forth on this. And one of the comments it basically suggested, hey, what if we skipped this whole code rigmarole, and we decide we're just going to ignore Raymond? Like, we are going to pretend that all of these issues of his journal do not exist. And if enough people get behind this idea, they could actually do that, right? Raymond can keep churning out these papers. He can keep announcing new species in his journal. But if the herpetology community decides to ignore him, like he's just an outsider shouting into the void.
Because in the end, the real rules aren't what is written in the rulebook. It's whatever a community decides to actually enforce. And there's no rule book that can save Raymond from that.
Back on Travis's porch, Alexa and I are still hanging out with his snapping turtle. And the turtle, not happy about it.
TRAVIS THOMAS: She just doesn't like to be held. So she's desperately trying to get back into the water.
ELAH FEDER: We feel bad, and a little scared, so we put her back in the water, where she happily blows bubbles.
[SOUND OF BUBBLES IN THE WATER]
We asked Travis what her name is, and he actually has not named her yet. But at one point, out of nowhere, Alexa just casually drops this.
ALEXA LIM: All right. Thanks, Nancy. Not her real name.
ELAH FEDER: You just named her Nancy?
ALEXA LIM: Yeah, I just named her Nancy.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, Alexa just named Travis's turtle before he had a chance to. Scooped.
TRAVIS THOMAS: Nancy. Is that what we're calling her?
ELAH FEDER: Travis pretty much just rolls with it, shrugs it off.
TRAVIS THOMAS: All right. We'll call her Nancy.
ELAH FEDER: I guess when you name a whole species, you can be pretty easy-going about one or two individual turtles. And maybe that's why he's so cool with Raymond now, too.
TRAVIS THOMAS: I'd have a beer with him. I don't hold anything against him. I mean, I'm not a bitter person like that. So I don't like to hold on to things like that.
ELAH FEDER: He feels like this whole fight is behind him, that he won, that it worked out fine for Travis. But he says he's done with taxonomy, which Raymond, if you're listening, you might be pleased to hear. Raymond still says these names are rightfully his by the code. But the journals, and a lot of herpetologists, they're siding with Travis.
I'm going to call it. I don't think Nancy minds either way.
[SOUNDS OF BUBBLES IN WATER]
TRAVIS THOMAS: She likes to blow bubbles.
ELAH FEDER: Undiscovered is reported and produced by me, Elah Feder and by Annie Minoff, who is unfortunately out with a cold. And also for this episode we had help from Alexa Lim.
ALEXA LIM: That’s me. Hey. Alexa. We also had production help from Sushmita Pathak who brought us this story and fact checking help from Michelle Harris.
ELAH FEDER: Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. And our production intern is Kaitlyn Schwalje. Thank you as always to the SciFri and WNYC Studio staff, especially this week to Tony Phillips and Jenny Lawton for some feedback they gave us along the way.
If you want to read more about this story we have links up at undiscoveredpodcast.org.
ALEXA LIM: And you probably heard Hurricane Michael just hit Florida. We checked in. Travis and Nancy are just fine.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, we were glad to hear that. And finally thank you for the nice reviews we got these past few days on Apple podcasts, especially to, solong4now and Platipodes. If you want to leave us a review we always really appreciate it. We read them obsessively. Thank you. See you next week.