Re: [OT] species names, was Incorrect names for Arabic letters

From: Curtis Clark (
Date: Sun Mar 20 2005 - 16:04:25 CST

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    on 2005-03-20 13:18 Doug Ewell wrote:
    > Ahmad Gharbeia <gharbeia at gmail dot com> wrote:
    >>Even names of species are changed when necessary.
    > I thought I had read that this was not so, that incorrect or misleading
    > names of species had to be left intact for stability, but could be
    > annotated.

    Since this comes up occasionally, I want to clarify some of the issues.
    The comparisons are interesting, and the people who deal with names of
    organisms face some of the same problems that Unicode faces.

    1. In order to even be considered, a name of a species must be "validly
    published": the name must be proposed according to a set of specific
    rules. There is no governing body that determines a priori which species
    names meet the criteria, but it can be determined a posteriori, usually
    by consensus.

    2. Competing names for the same species are governed by the principle of
    priority: the first validly published name is used. This can cause
    problems when old names are rediscovered for organisms already well-know
    by a different scientific name. The bacteriologists have solved that
    issue by coming up with a list of names in common use, that have
    automatic priority over as-yet-unrediscovered older names. Zoologists
    and botanists are still considering such systems.

    3. There are provisions for conserving, on a case-by-case basis,
    commonly-used names and rejecting otherwise unknown names that are older.

    4. There are two common ways that names can change:

    A. Change in circumscription. If a biologist decides that two species
    are really the same (there aren't significant biological differences to
    recognize them as separate species), the combined species ordinarily
    takes the oldest name from among the names of the combined species. That
    is why the California poppy is called Eschscholzia californica rather
    than Eschscholzia crocea, even though most of the cultivated forms would
    have been classified as the latter back when botanists thought they were
    different species.

    B. Change in classification. Often a species will be assigned to a
    different genus, based perhaps on new biological knowledge, so that
    purple needlegrass, for example, could change its name from Stipa
    pulchra to Nasella pulchra, as a result of the old genus Stipa being
    taken apart, with a few species left in it and the rest put in other genera.

    The rules of nomenclature are at the same time very precise, yet subject
    to interpretation in each individual case.

    There is an interesting web site at that deals with some of
    the bizarre and humorous in nomenclature.

    Curtis Clark        
    Web Coordinator, Cal Poly Pomona                 +1 909 979 6371
    Professor, Biological Sciences                   +1 909 869 4062

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