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[NEOORN-L] More on nomenclature, classification, and databases (fwd)
Bainbridge Island, WA, USA
"Rallidae all the way!"
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 16 Oct 2005 09:46:49 -0400
From: Ellen Paul <ellen.paul@VERIZON.NET>
Reply-To: Bulletin Board for Ornithologists working with Neotropical Birds
Subject: [NEOORN-L] More on nomenclature, classification, and databases
From the New York Times.
The Ornithological Council
Ornithological Council Website: http://www.nmnh.si.edu/BIRDNET
"Providing Scientific Information about Birds"
October 11, 2005
In the Classification Kingdom, Only the Fittest Survive
By CAROL KAESUK YOON
Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th-century botanist and father of scientific
naming, enjoyed the unusual status of international scientific hero.
Celebrated as the creator of a classification system that brought order
to the flood of new species being discovered, Linnaeus was revered in
his native Sweden and was so widely admired across Europe that he became
one of the most frequently painted figures of the 1700's. (The 515
portraits, incidentally, did nothing to correct his already oversized ego.)
In fact, the triumph of the Linnaean method, which uses kingdoms of life
and two-part Latin names for species, was so complete that it seemed he
had forever solved the problem of cataloging the world's living things.
So Linnaeus would most likely be shocked - after guessing there were
fewer than 15,000 species of animals and plants on earth - to learn that
more than 200 years later, scientists are far from finishing the naming
of living things and are once again being overwhelmed by an explosion of
new species and names.
Between 1.5 million and 2 million species have been named, and a deluge
of what could be millions more appears imminent.
As a result, scientists have once again been seized by 18th-century
paroxysms of fear that the field of classification could descend into
chaos with precious information lost. For while the Linnaean method for
organizing life is still followed and has held up well, no one oversees
what has become the rapid and sometimes haphazard proliferation of
Enter ZooBank, a Web-based register to compile the scientific names of
all animal species.
Proposed recently in the journal Nature by the International Commission
on Zoological Nomenclature, a group of scientists in charge of the
standard code of rules for animals, ZooBank is the latest entry in a
growing field of contenders eager to use the Internet to take on the
task of overseeing the naming of life and step into the limelight as the
Andrew Polaszek, the executive secretary of the commission and lead
author of the Nature paper, says one goal of ZooBank is to create a
complete list of the scientific names for animals, a basic necessity for
scientists that, surprisingly, does not yet exist.
Given that scientists have often given preferential treatment to animals
over plants, it should come as no surprise that there is no complete
database for all scientific plant names. Don't even bother to ask about
other major groups like fungi or the protists (a group including slime
molds and amoebas).
Only the lowly bacteria can claim a complete inventory. The numbers of
species and specialists in the field were few enough in 1980 that the
scientists could obliterate all names not on their single approved list
and refuse to accept new names except those published in a certain journal.
A major reason that no one has kept track of all the species names is
the surprising Wild West sort of freedom that allows names to spring up
pretty much anywhere.
Let's say a person discovers what she believes is a new species. If she
publishes a description of the organism with her newly created name for
it, by the internationally accepted rules of science, the name
officially stands. But while she might publish in a carefully
peer-reviewed scientific journal, she might also publish it, as Dr.
Polaszek lamented, "in the little local journal that your neighbor
produces in his garage."
(This is no joke. My husband, who once carefully followed butterfly
taxonomy, recalled a journal that was published out of the basement of
the self-appointed editor's mother. It was another perfectly legitimate,
if musty, source of names.)
But while scientists agree that the proliferation is out of control,
there is no consensus on who should be in control. And every new
initiative has a different flavor and agenda.
ZooBank, for example, proposes serving not only as a list keeper but
also as gatekeeper, becoming the only official registry of animal names
and mandating that all animal names receive ZooBank approval before
being considered legitimate, ensuring that all animal names follow the
rules of the nomenclature commission's code.
BioCode, in contrast, proposes that botanists and zoologists each give
up the separate parochial codes of naming they've developed and instead
adopt a new universal BioCode, the first step in creating a single,
unified registry of life.
Then there's uBio, which has sidestepped the question of codes and
regulations altogether and instead aims to record every single name ever
used for any organism, scientific or common, correct or incorrect, down
to the last variation and misspelling, as a way of linking all
information ever recorded about an organism together.
The All Species Foundation aims not only to record all names but also to
find every species and describe it, all in 25 years. And then there's
Wikispecies, Species 2000, the Electronic Catalogue of Names of Known
Organisms and many more. Some have already come and gone, or nearly so,
and others are expiring for lack of sustained funds.
So ZooBank finds itself born in the midst of a Cambrian explosion of
initiatives, a proliferation not merely of Web sites and databases but
of ideas about how to accomplish the task of naming and organizing all
of life. And though disorder may be the most abhorrent thing to a tidy
taxonomist, sometimes a little chaos can be healthy.
"Actually, I think the diversity is good," said James Mallet, an
evolutionary biologist at University College London and a leader of yet
another initiative known as the Taxome Project. "As an evolutionary
biologist, I see great possibilities for natural selection, parasitism
and predation among the various projects."
And just that kind of "nature red in tooth and claw" action is already
happening, as sites and projects link, merging information, and others
take up what they can use from wherever they can find it, and so on.
So let all comers step up to the plate. Why not, when the rewards are so
rich? Not only did Linnaeus shape the naming of life for more than two
centuries, but he also enjoyed perks including crowning himself "prince
of botanists" and reviewing his own work as "a masterpiece that no one
can read too often or admire too much."
His glories even include being designated as the so-called "lectotype,"
a kind of official scientific specimen to represent, for science and for
all of time, the species Homo sapiens. Not bad for an old-time flower