Science - January 16, 2012

Botanical names now English and online

As of 1 January this year, new rules are in force for the naming of plant species. For the first time, scientists are now authorized to publish species’ names exclusively online. And they no longer have to give them Latin names: English is now a second option. The changes are part of the latest five-yearly revision of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

Updating the rules for naming plants is intended to ensure that threatened species are identified in time.
The change should speed up the slow process of naming new species. The tradition of using Latin names, for example, is a nuisance for scientists without a classical background. And the rule that the new name had to be published in a paper journal was killing, says Jan Wieringa, university lecturer in Biosystematics: 'before January 1, scientists were already publishing in online magazines of which only three were printed as well.'

Wieringa does see some disadvantages to the slackening of the rules on language. 'If we had changed the rules 100 years ago, we would have chosen German. In 50 years' time so much of the world will be Spanish speaking that it should be Spanish. In 100 years' time the Chinese will demand that it be Chinese.' A dead language such as Latin solves these diplomatic disputes. 'Latin is neutral.'

Wieringa also warns that confusion about plant names could return. If a scientist publishes a determination without realizing that it is a new species, he may end up naming the new plant 'by accident'. 'Even if they put the determination on the website of their own journal, it counts as the earliest mention.' What is more, determinations and names can be changed after publication online, so strict rules will be needed to prevent that.

Of course the Code is trying to build in all sorts of safeguards, says Wieringa. But it remains to be seen whether this will prevent such problems. Other botanists do not seem too fazed by the possible hitches. At least, they told Nature that their main hope is that the new system will help them to determine as many rare plant species and taxa as possible before extinction.