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Friday, March 05, 2004

What's in a name?
Since 1753, humanity has scientifically named + described just over 1.5 million species using Carl Linnaeus' binomial system of classification.

Under this system each organism is given one Latin name to indicate the genus (e.g. Homo) , and one as a "shorthand" name for the species (e.g. sapiens).

Unfortunately, tens of millions of species remain to be named and many of the world's existing taxonomic experts are now retiring, dying or tiring without being replaced.

This creeping process is leaving vast swathes of biodiversity taxonomically orphaned... without anyone left alive, or active, who can name or otherwise help to understand them.

Sadly, our inability to accurately name species, and associate them with other forms of life, makes the study of ecology in many species-rich areas of the world extremely difficult, and can often mean that efforts to understand + conserve the environment are seriously handicapped...

In order to tackle this problem some German museums are beginning to experiment with allowing benefactors to sponsor the process of naming new species and then choose the name ascribed to the new species, for all eternity...

This idea sounds great in principle but, as the following article by an Australian taxonomist explains, this solution can be fraught with dangers, as it may encourage taxonomists to cut corners and trivialise the scientific importance of descriptive names.

On a lighter note, Earth-Info.Net was amused to learn how taxonomists have occasionally exchanged bitter insults with one another by naming parasitic, stunted or smelly organisms after their rivals!

There's obviously more than you might think in a name... and a good case for society improving the funding of this crucially important + fundamental science, which is slow to acquire, yet quick to loose.