Linnaeus’s long goodbye?

Carl Linnaeus, Mrs Morgan's Florileigum, Natalie Waddell, transit of Venus,

From January 1, 2012 botanists will no longer be required to provide Latin descriptions of newly discovered plants in a move designed to speed up the process of classifying species before they die out.

The new rules, agreed at a conference during the International Botanical Congress last summer, also recognise electronic publication for the first time and represent a radical shake-up of a system that dates back almost 260 years.

The ‘binomial’ tradition of scientific nomenclature – such as Homo sapiens for humans – has its origins in the 1753 publication of Species Plantarum by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

As part of the process of establishing the scientific foundation for a new species, botanists not only have to give them Latinized names but also, from 1908, have been required to describe them in exact detail using the ancient language. They have also been required to do so in print.

However, fewer and fewer scientists are comfortable with Latin these days and as fears grow that climate change and deforestation could wipe out many species before we’ve had a chance to register their existence, the decision has been made to drop the need for a Latin description.

While the headline on the source article is rather misleading – Latin names for newly discovered plants will still be required – this is still a major change in the history of taxonomy and the relevance of Linnaean system today is still very much a live debate.


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