Botanists et al freed from Latin, paper

Classifying plants, algae and fungi can now be done in English and online

Whether Paul Kirk was wearing a pointy party hat at the time, he’s not saying. But as 2012 loomed just a few minutes away, the mycologist cum biosystematist slipped upstairs to his office, logged in to a computer database of fungal names and, as fast as he could after midnight in England, celebrated the new year by publishing the name of a newly discovered fungus.

Solanum sanchez-vegae, shown here, got its scientific name in an unusual demonstration of electronic taxonomy in 2010 during a debate over changing international nomenclature requirements to recognize online publication. Now, new rules allow electronic publishing and English descriptions. Courtesy of A. Cano/USM

The coming of 2012 is quite a time to celebrate, or revile, for scientists naming algae, fungi or plants. Starting January 1, the latest revision of the international code governing these names allows two new options: skipping paper publishing and describing key features in English instead of Latin.

“Run for your lives! End of the world!” was the (tongue-in-cheek) title of a 2010 discussion of electronic publishing for nomenclature printed in the journal Taxon by botanist Sandra Knapp at the Natural History Museum in London and colleagues. The main fear has been that species descriptions will be lost as electronic technology whizzes forward. Try reading a floppy disk these days, skeptics moan.

Yet digital archiving by central repositories has become more sophisticated than the box of old floppies, Knapp says. And in July 2011, the international congress that meets every six years to revise the nomenclature code convened in Melbourne, Australia, and voted to accept certain forms of electronic publication.

So Knapp and a colleague seized the day on January 1 with the electronic publication of a new southern African eggplant relative in the genus Solanum in the open access journal PhytoKeys.  

The big news for nonbotanists, though, may be that through the end of 2011 a major group of taxonomists still had to describe at least the diagnostic traits in Latin for a scientific name to be considered valid.

The requirement to describe a new species in Latin lasted as long as it did “only because no one speaks it,” says Bill Buck of the New York Botanical Garden. Unlike English, he says, “Latin is an equal-opportunity discriminator.”

Botanical Latin has become its own language, Knapp says. A standard guide points out that routine phrasing for describing a stem and flowers would read to a classicist as “… stem conspicuously glistening like gold and reaching the age of puberty with the thin metal plates full of kernels, with the medicines made from flowers a little longer than the woman’s apartment ….”

The move to offer just English as an alternative for descriptive phrases ”raised some eyebrows,” says Brian Schrire of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England. Names still must be in Latin, but Schrire predicts more proposals to allow descriptions in other languages.

Something needs to streamline the process of naming, though, he says. Botanists are probably only about halfway through describing the plants on Earth, with roughly 200,000 species described. Yet only about 2,000 names get published a year at the current pace. For the estimated millions of fungi, “they’ve barely scratched the surface,” Schrire says.

Kirk’s New Year’s nomenclature tests just how far researchers can go these days to bring new species to light. He’s not only publishing electronically, without peer review, but he’s also describing a fungus he has never even seen based just on DNA pulled from a cow effluent fermenter. Happy New Year indeed.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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