New species of the year

More creatures, less Latin used to describe them

2012 SCIENCE NEWS TOP 25: 21

A monkey with a blond mane and sky blue rear end was introduced to science this year. So was the first bacterium with calcium structures a bit like bones (SN: 6/2/12, p. 14), the world’s smallest fly (SN: 12/15/12, p. 32), a sponge shaped like a harp, a “cave robber” spider with fold-up claws (right) and a new species of priapiumfish, which sprout long mating structures underneath males’ chins. By the end of 2012, biologists will have described somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 new species for the year.

C.E. Griswold et al/ZooKeys 2012

Of all these, one of the most remarkable was the description of Solanum umtuma, a prickly South African shrub related to eggplant. Anyone about to argue that, say, this year’s dragon millipedes trump a vegetable should read the Solanum paper’s diagnosis section, distinguishing the new species from old ones. It’s in English, marking the end of a requirement that a new plant, fungus or alga name was legitimate only if its diagnosis was in Latin.

Scientific names will still be in Latin. But starting in the brave new year of 2012, botanists can publish their summaries of distinctive traits in either Latin or English. And botanists will now accept online publication of names, as long as there’s deep archiving. Making paper optional is a bold change for scientists who expect the names they create to last for centuries.

Animal descriptions are going digital too, according to a September decision by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. These drastic changes grow out of consternation over how slowly scientists are describing the backlog of species already found, much less those yet to be discovered. Studying anything about living organisms — their medicinal or ecosystem uses, threats they face or pose, the clues they hold to evolutionary processes — totters on the brink of nonsense without clear-cut descriptions of who’s who. Meanwhile, a study in PLOS ONE in May showed that the rate of discovery of new local organisms has yet to slow down in Europe, even though the area has long been picked over by biologists.

Taxonomists have described about 1.9 million living species so far (not counting bacteria and archaea). But a recent estimate predicts 6.8 million more to discover. At the current pace, it will take another 400 years to name them all. If a higher estimate is right, the job could take 1,653 years, assuming species don’t go extinct before scientists notice them.

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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.