Et tu, Linnaeus?

When James Miller, Dean and Vice President for Science at The New York Botanical Garden, was ready to name a newly-discovered tree in 2001, he hewed carefully to a rule that botanists have followed for a century: He painstakingly wrote out a lengthy description in Latin. “Arbor ad 8 m alta, ramunculis sparse pilosis,” it began — tree 8 meters tall, the twigs sparsely but evenly covered with fine hairs.

On New Year’s Day, however, that rite was put to rest. In a major effort to speed up the process of officially recognizing new plant species, botanists will no longer be required to provide Latin descriptions, and publication in online academic journals and books will be considered as valid as print publication.

“These are fundamental changes that are going to facilitate the ability to name and describe new species,” says Miller, who is the lead author of a summary of the new rules in the online journal PhytoKeys. Eliminating the Latin requirement–in place since 1908–and moving to electronic publication “will really expedite and simplify the process of describing the diversity that’s out there.”

The binomial tradition of scientific nomenclature—using two-word Latin names such as Homo sapiens for humans—dates to the 1753 publication of Species Plantarum by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. The new rules, which were approved at a nomenclature conference held in conjunction with the International Botanical Congress last July, are far from academic. Botanists name about 2,000 new species of plants, algae, and fungi every year, Miller and his colleagues note. And “in an age where almost certainly 20 percent of the world’s plant species, and undoubtedly much greater percentages of fungi and algae, remain to be discovered, described and named, this step will hopefully help taxonomists in their race to document biological diversity before it is lost to the deforestation and habitat degradation that threatens their extinction.”

In addition, they note, writing scientifically accurate and grammatically correct Latin descriptions is cumbersome and time-consuming in an age when fewer scientists are comfortable with Latin, once the lingua franca of science. With the new rules, the scientific names for new species will still be latinized, but the description can be in English.

“There’s an urgency in describing the plants of the world,” Miller said. “I don’t think we have any capacity to understand and take care of nature unless we can identify it.” – David Malakoff | January 4, 2012

Source: Miller J, Funk V, Wagner W, Barrie F, Hoch P, Herendeen P (2011) Outcomes of the 2011 Botanical Nomenclature Section at the XVIII International Botanical Congress. PhytoKeys 5: 1-3. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.5.1850

Image © Nicku |