In praise of … Latin binomials

Let us salute the taxonomists who on the Fijian island of Mba, spotted a new snail and named it Ba humbugi.

Editorial The Guardian, Tuesday 23 December 2008
Article history

Newspaper style books discourage italics, which is why, when taxonomists see the words Tyrannosaurus rex or Escherichia coli in a roman typeface, they wince. The conventions of biological nomenclature insist that the generic name begins with a capital, the specific with lower case and both should be in italics. Taxonomists are the experts who have named and described 1.4 million of the planet’s living and extinct creatures, and who have themselves been celebrating an anniversary in 2008. The great biologist, Linnaeus, published the definitive edition of his Systema Naturae in 1758, and to this day all biologists rely on his simple, universal rules to identify the living things around them, and their evolutionary relationships. Taxonomists are, like the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris), a threatened species within the scientific genus. One authority estimates their number at a trifling 6,000. But these specialists are not just the last word on ants or aardvarks, they are the also the first word: they dream up the names. They are the last living Latin (and occasionally Greek) poets, composing precise and sometimes brilliant little plays upon words for each new species. So just for once let us salute – in italics – the professionals who named a Brazilian pterosaur Arthurdactylus conandoylensis, who discovered an alga fossilised in the sex act 1.2bn years ago and called it Bangiomorpha pubescens, and who on the Fijian island of Mba, spotted a new snail and named it Ba humbugi.

View the article here.

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