Reinventing the high court of organism names

Dec 05, 2013 by Brendan M. Lynch

Ever since Carl Linnaeus founded the system for naming biological organisms in the 18th century —called binomial nomenclature, for the two Latin words used to describe species (e.g., Homo sapiens)—there have been causes for controversy among biologists, taxonomists and others who have named 1.5 million living things so far.

For instance, two scientists might discover the same organism separately from one another, and give it different ; or a scientist might give a new name to an organism that already had been named; or a scientist might name an organism inappropriately.

For such cases and more, there is the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature, which for more than a century has settled disputes in naming organisms and established rules to follow in naming new species.

Daphne Fautin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, is a commissioner with the ICZN.

"The commission is like the 'supreme court' for names of animals," Fautin said. "We also set the rules. We make a code, and those are the rules by which animals are named. We don't have to approve names—we just trust the community will follow the rules to maintain order. Only when there's a problem or a dispute in applying the rules do we get involved as a court."

One recent dispute involved the Giant Tortoise of Aldabra.

"It had been known by two names—one commonly used in science, but the other was older," Fautin said. "It turns out the legislation to protect the tortoise is all under the younger name, so we voted to invoke the younger name. Otherwise, we might have invalidated some of the legislation if we'd used the older name. That issue got a lot of comments, both pro and con."

Fautin, who also serves at KU as a curator with the Biodiversity Institute, is one of 26 ICZN commissioners—all of whom are senior scientists from around the world with expertise in different animal groups.

As a current vice president, she's recently helped to give the commission new life after the bankruptcy of its former sponsor threatened to put an end to the group's 118-year history.

For the next three years, National University of Singapore has agreed to host the coordinating part of the commission's secretariat, while the Natural History Museum in London will employ the editor of the commission's primary publication, The Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature.

In the meantime, Fautin said the group would work to put its financial house in order for the future.

"There hasn't really been a good business model," said the KU researcher. "This buys us some time and allows us to operate while we look for a way to move forward."

For now, the commission's work of policing species names continues. In late November, the group met in Singapore to address pressing issues of nomenclature and the business of the group itself, hoping to modernize its rules and practices.

"One of the recent instances is electronic publications," Fautin said. "We just issued an amendment making electronic publication of names legal, but there are some conditions. You can't just publish it like it's on paper. The names have to be registered first on our official registry. We're trying to keep up with the times and realities that people are publishing electronically, but we know that electronic records are ephemeral compared to journals to which libraries subscribe. We were concerned that electronic journals just could disappear."

Fautin, known internationally as a pre-eminent expert on sea anemones, has discovered, described and named a plethora of herself —so she has a vested interest in the rules governing scientific names.

"You can name a species after whatever you want," she said. "You're not supposed to name something after yourself—that's the only prohibition. And you shouldn't give vulgar names to things, although Carl Linnaeus himself was famous for that."

Explore further: Next-generation global e-infrastructure for taxon names registry

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Zoologists are no longer restricted to publish new species on paper

Sep 04, 2012

In a highly debated decision, the rules for publication of scientific zoological names have changed to allow purely digital publications to meet the requirements of the stringent Code of Zoological Nomenclature. On 4th of September, the International Commis ...

Bringing botany into the 21st Century

Sep 14, 2011

Botanical taxonomy, which extends to include the formal scientific naming of all plants, algae and fungi has gone through a landmark change in the procedure scientists need to follow when they describe new species. Details ...

Linnaeus 2.0: First E-publication of new plant species

May 05, 2010

Four new Neotropical plant species in the hyperdiverse genus Solanum (Solanaceae), which includes plants as diverse as the deadly nightshade as well as the more palatable tomato have been published in the open access online ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.