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Taxonomy, Turkish style

10 March 2005 (All day)
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What's in a name? Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica is now Vulpes vulpes.

Who knew that taxonomic nomenclature could undermine national unity? The Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry was worried, apparently, and earlier this month it changed the Latin names of three animals to expunge "divisive" references to two ethnic minorities--Kurds and Armenians.

Turkey's relationship to Kurds and Armenians has long been tense. The government opposes Kurdish separatists and disputes the Armenian claim that the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey's predecessor, carried out ethnic cleansing in Eastern Turkey in the early 20th century.

Henceforth, the ministry declared in a 4 March statement, Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica, a Turkish subspecies of the red fox, will be referred to simply as Vulpes vulpes. The wild sheep Ovis armeniana becomes Ovis orientalis anatolicus, while the deer Capreolus capreolus armenius is now Capreolus capreolus capreolus. The statement alleges that the original names were given with "ill intent."

The name changes face a few challenges, says Andrew Polaszek, executive secretary of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the body responsible for establishing species naming conventions. Polaszek says changing a species name for purely political reasons is verboten, and merely announcing new names does not ensure that scientists will adopt the changes, which must be published in a scientific journal to be official. Otherwise, the new names are scientifically acceptable revisions of the old ones. Dropping a subspecies name, as in the case of the fox, is permissible, as is changing a name to an alternative already in use, as in the case of the sheep and the deer.

However, other taxonomists note that the Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry overlooked some microbial species that could be considered similarly divisive. “I certainly hope that the Turkish politicians don't discover the Azotobacter armeniacus, Cystobacter armeniaca, [or] Actinoplanes aremeniacus," says George Garrity, a microbiologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

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