| A new species of monkey recently discovered in Brazilian rain forest
Carolus Linnaeus, 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 1700s.
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 cataloguing 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. About 1.5 million to 2 million species have been named, and a deluge of what could be many millions more appears imminent.
For while the Linnaean method for organising life is still followed and has held up well, no one oversees what has become the rapid and sometimes haphazard proliferation of species names.
Enter ZooBank, a Web-based register to compile the scientific names of all animal species. Proposed recently in 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 next Linnaeus.
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.
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 flavour and agenda. ZooBank, for example, proposes serving not only as a list keeper but 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.
Carol Kaesuk Yoon / NYTNS