While most of biology has kicked into hyperdrive, taxonomists pride themselves on keeping their research in line with work done decades, even centuries, ago. That means sticking with the principles that each organism's true name be the oldest one appearing in the print literature, all names be in grammatically correct Latin, and any deviations from these rules be approved by an international commission. But even taxonomists are feeling the pressure of our accelerated pace of life, as shown by the new edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, a set of naming rules that first came out in 1905 and was last updated in 1985.
The code, newly revised under the auspices of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, allows its users to make some time-saving changes and even begins to bring zoological nomenclature into the digital age. Still, a few researchers fear that the revisions don't go far enough in preparing the field for the 21st century. "A lot of people wanted a lot more changes," notes William Eschmeyer, an ichthyologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
To its credit, the new, fourth edition "gives individual scientists a lot more authority" to sidestep priority when they find an early name if that name has not been in use for at least 100 years, says Eschmeyer. It also relaxes some rules for making sure that the Latin spellings of names are correct. And while the old rules required that descriptions of new animals or name changes be printed in a journal, the new code allows researchers to publish them on compact discs, as long as "identical and durable copies" are put in at least five libraries that are accessible to the public. The World Wide Web, however, is not acceptable, nor are electronic journals, says Alessandro Minelli, a zoologist at the University of Padova in Italy.
To streamline searches for existing species names, the code opens the door to the establishment of official species lists that anyone could check. "There are many lists in progress," notes Minelli, president of the commission, but there is no agreement yet on exactly how the lists should be set up or kept current. That, he says, may be in the next revision.
At least one of the revised code's new authors, entomologist F. Christian Thompson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture systematics laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History, wishes that the commission had not put off that step, however, and that the code had also gone further in eliminating Latin requirements so as to make it easier to automate and computerize taxonomic data. Indeed, Thompson worries that there might not even be a "next revision." Over his 25-year career, he says he has seen a steady decline in the number of taxonomists as the pace of progress in other areas of biology lures budding scientists. "With fewer and fewer people [in the field], I'm not sure we could assemble a core group of people to do this again," he says.