Culturing Science

Culturing Science

Biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Botanists finally ditch Latin and paper, enter 21st century


While some schoolchildren daydream about crushes during class, delicately inscribing their names in paper margins, others instead yearn to one day discover and name their own species for the cute boy at the corner desk. But they know little about the excess work involved in plant discovery. Even after discovering and confirming a new species of plant, which is trying enough itself, botanists have to submit a description in Latin -- even if they had never studied the language before -- and ensure that said description is published in a journal printed on real paper.

That is until New Years Day 2012, when new rules passed at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia this July, take effect: the botanists voted on a measure to leave the lengthy and time-consuming descriptions behind. Additionally, the group released their concerns about the impermanence of electronic publication, and will now allow official descriptions to be set in online-only journals.

“Probably in 1935 [when the Latin requirement was instated], most people who got serious university degrees were required to take Latin,” says botanist Jim Miller from the New York Botanical Garden, who published an accompanying paper in the journal PhytoKeys in July. “But it has become less true that Latin is universally accessible.”

The botanists' abandonment of Latin is yet another opportunity for this amateur Classicist to bemoan the passing of Classical study -- but when I spoke with Jim, he really did have me convinced that it was time. This isn't just a simple Latin name we're talking about, or even a sentence; for example, when Jim discovered a new species of tree in Suriname, he had to pen the following in order to officially name it Cordia koemarae:

Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis. Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticus, 12-23.5 cm longis, 6-13 cm latis, minoribus orbicularis, ca 8.5 cm longis,  7.5 cm latis, apice acuminato et caudato, acuminibus 1.5-2 cm longis, basi rotundata ad obtusam, margine integra, supra sericea, trichomatis 2.5-4 mm longis, appressis, pagina inferiore sericea ad pilosam, trichomatis 2-3 mm longis; petioli 4-7 mm longi. Inflorescentia terminalis vel axillaris, cymosa, 8-10 cm latis. Flores bisexuales; calyx tubularis, ca. 6 mm longus, 10-costatus; corolla alba, tubularis, 5-lobata; stamina 5, filis 8-10 mm longis, pubescentia ad insertionem.

Okay, so it's not exactly a prime example of Golden Age Latin poetry. But, nonetheless, the Latin requirement presented a hindrance to botanists who are busy trying to name nearly 2,000 new species of plants, algae and fungi each year to disseminate the findings to other scientists and naturalists. "If we can increase the efficiency by which biologists can do their work and name species that we are racing against the clock to describe before they are lost or go extinct because of galloping deforestation, that’s a good thing," says Miller.

And in another unanimous vote at the conference, which is held every six years and includes 8-10 hours of discussion nomenclature each day, the botanists decided to allow publication in electronic journals. The group had a similar discussion six years ago, Miller told me, but at the time the web still felt very impermanent -- I'm thinking geocities or angelfire impermanent. And if you're a botanist consulting a lengthy record of described plant species, you don't want to lose some of those descriptions into the black hole of cyberspace. But this year, the botanists decided the web was less spooky and now can describe species in any electronic journal that has an ISSN, for the purpose of archiving.

"I think the importance of what happened at the Melbourne conference -- whether elimination of Latin or allowing electronic publication -- is that there was a real feeling among the people who attended the nomenclature session that we face a daunting task trying to catalogue, make sense out of, describe and name all of the species that are on this planet," says Miller. "And we need to facilitate that, not encumber it."

So on this New Years day, don't just make resolutions and seek a kiss -- also do your part in welcoming the botanists to the 21st century, a century in which we no longer speak in Latin and the web feels like a somewhat permanent destination... at least for now.

Images: from the Aztec herbal Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, first translated into Latin in 1552. Images in the public domain and found on Wikimedia Commons.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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