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Revised rules for botanical taxonomy take effect

Posted on behalf of Katherine Rowland.

Since Linnaean taxonomy took hold in the eighteenth century, Latin has been the lingua franca of botany. In addition to designating the names of ranked genus and subspecies in Latin, botanists have also used the language to describe new taxa.

But not anymore.

As of 1 January, the new International Code of Botanical Nomenclature is in effect, allowing botanists the options of writing descriptive statements in English and of publishing papers electronically.

The changes follow the amendments ratified at the International Botanical Congress (IBC) held in Melbourne, Australia in July of last year (see Botanists shred paperwork in taxonomy reforms).

The earlier code, which required botanists both to write diagnoses in Latin and to publish only in print journals, made the documentation of new taxa a laborious process.

Botanists estimate that the roughly 200,000 names published thus far represent just more than half of existing plant species and only a fraction of the world’s fungi and algae. “We’re still describing several thousand new species every year,” says botanist Mark Chase of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Surrey, UK. “Electronic publishing will definitely enhance the rate at which we describe new species.”

However, it is not clear whether the removal of the Latin requirement will do much to accelerate the rate of cataloguing new taxa. According to plant biologist Jerrold Davis of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York: “The removal of the Latin requirement is an acceptance that English has become the language of science, and Latin has become an encumbrance rather than a facilitator of communication. I wish it would have a major effect, recognizing new taxa is absolutely essential, but it won’t really speed things up.”

“It’s a generational thing,” says Chase of the new option to write taxonomical diagnoses in English. “It’s overdue modernization.”

Even if it does not accelerate the publishing process, the end of the Latin requirement may allow for greater inclusion of scientists from countries where education rarely includes instruction in classical languages. According to Sandra Knapp, a botanist with the Natural History Museum in London: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.”

However, the decision to streamline the naming process was not based on efficiency alone. The threat of biodiversity loss was also a major source of motivation. The IBC’s latest resolutions state: “As many as two-thirds of the world’s 350,000 plant species are in danger of extinction in nature during the course of the 21st century. Plant diversity is increasingly threatened worldwide as a result of habitat loss, unsustainable exploitation of plant resources, pollution, climate change, the spread of invasive species and pathogens and many other factors.”

Knapp, who was also chair of plant taxonomy at the IBC, says: “We’re losing species very quickly. Many of the new species we’re documenting now are rare. Most new taxa are vulnerable or endangered. If it takes upwards of two years to come out with a paper, then that’s just crazy.”

Image: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, courtesy of AndyRobertsPhotos via flickr under Creative Commons.

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