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What's in a name? Rescue of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature will ensure that biologists have a place to resolve naming disputes, such as the one over this giant tortoise officially known as Testudo gigantea.

Zoological Naming Authority Gets New Lease on Life

By: 
Dennis Normile
2013-11-18 11:45
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The financially beleaguered International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has found a new home—and some temporary financial security—in Singapore.

Formed in 1895, the London-based ICZN sets rules for naming newly identified species—some 16,000 a year—and resolves disputes over names for animals both living and extinct. Without this effort, there would be "something akin to anarchy in animal naming," Michael Dixon, director of the United Kingdom's Natural History Museum, in London, told Science earlier this year. 

But the U.K.-based charitable trust that supported ICZN has run out of money, and the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Natural History Museum have come to the rescue. As announced 18 November in Singapore, where the commission is meeting, NUS will host the secretariat, with one full-time staffer coordinating the worldwide activities of ICZN. The editor of the commission's Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature will continue to be based at the Natural History Museum. ICZN President Jan van Tol, of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, says the two institutions will be approximately splitting the commission's $155,000 plus in annual expenses.

In addition to the lifeline, "we feel it's important to move to Asia, [because] there is a lot of activity in taxonomy," Van Tol says. The 26 commissioners hail from 19 countries, and with offices in Europe and Asia, "we're now truly the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature," says Daphne Fautin, a zoologist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who is ICZN’s vice president.

The new hosts are equally enthusiastic. "In Singapore there is a growing realization of the importance of biodiversity and species [preservation] especially in relation to global warming, says Barry Halliwell, NUS's deputy president for research. He says the university is "pretty proud" to be supporting the commission with a commitment of up to 100,000 Singapore dollars ($80,000) annually for 3 years.

The arrangement is intended to provide some breathing room so that ICZN can ponder ways to ensure its long-term survival. Van Tol says they hope to get additional natural history museums to contribute support either in kind or in cash. He says they are now discussing the possibility of an institution taking over management of the commission's ZooBank, the official registry of its zoological names. They also hope to build an endowment to support the secretariat.

Fundraising and management are unfamiliar chores for the commissioners. "For 40 or 50 years, we've left financial issues to the trust, now we have to worry about our business model, our secretariat, how to become more cost-effective and how to get more stakeholders to put money on the table," says Peter Ng, an NUS ichthyologist and commission member.

Meanwhile, ICZN has to continue to fulfill its core mission, which involves resolving things such as a dispute over the name of a giant tortoise, most commonly known as Testudo gigantea, found on the Indian Ocean atoll of Aldabra. Confusion over the identification of this reptile stretches back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Different scientists were using—and passionately supporting—different names. A researcher formally asked the commission to settle the matter in 2009. Since then, more than 80 interested parties weighed in with comments, sometimes attacking other scientists. "The case of gigantea was a very emotional one," Ng says. Because it had been in use longer and was more widespread, commissioners earlier this year voted to stick with Testudo gigantea, a decision that "conserves stability," Ng says.

Without a central naming authority, such conflicts might never get resolved. "The commission was formally organized in 1895 because for the previous hundred years that zoological nomenclature had existed, it had been chaotic," Fautin says. She believes that if the commission ceases to exist, "there would be a period of chaos and then it would have to be reinvented."

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