Monday, July 8, 2013

Botany Rules 5: New Rules Allowing Descriptions in Latin or English

acacia in Australia
acacia in Australia
  I wrote last time about the IAPT--International Association of Plant Taxonomists--the group that set up the rules of plant names. Changes are proposed and the rules gradually change. Many rules go back decades but the work of the International Association of Plant Taxonomists goes on. 

   The big news from the International Botanical Congress held in Melbourne Australia in 2011 was that the IAPT changed the rule that required the official description of a new plant to be in Latin. When Linnaeus set up our taxonomic system, he wrote in Latin. For centuries, new plants and animals were described in Latin. 

    Writing the official first description of a plant or animal lets the author choose the name and is very prestigious. So of course there have been fights over who was first. This lead to rules to define the first correct description of a particular plant or animal. A clear description in Latin, published in a respectable place--as in, not in a small-town newspaper--was required. 

    In the last 50 years, the requirement to write in Latin became a burden. Most working scientists do not have a working knowledge of Latin. The zoologists dropped the requirement to describe animals in Latin years ago. But it was the 2011 Melbourne Congress that changed that for plants. After January 1, 2012 the formal description of a new plant can be in English or Latin. A shocking change after 250 years of Latin descriptions!

   A knowledge of Latin remains useful in biology. Scientific names are constructed as if they were a noun (genus) and an adjective (species). Rosa alba, white rose.  In Latin there are genders and declensions, which account for the diversity of endings on scientific names. Working with Latinized words is easier the more Latin you know. 

    And, of course, Latin is necessary to read all the new plant descriptions written before 2012.

Alves, R. J. V., N. G. da Silva and J. F. Pereira. 2012. Latin shaken, not stirred. Taxon 61(1): 246.
McNeill, J. and N. J. Turland. 2011. Major changes to the Code of Nomenclature--Melbourne, July 2011. Taxon 60(5): 1495-1497.

Rocky Mountain bee plant, Cleome serrulata
Rocky Mountain bee plant, Cleome serrulata
Wherever its official description is, it is in Latin.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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