Current issues roundup

17 Jan

English: Must be climate change Magnolia flowe...Another feature I want to offer is periodic news-oriented posts wherein I can highlight some current issues in the worlds of botany and forestry.

This first story comes from the nomenclature conference held in conjunction with the recent International Botanical Congress. It was decided that as of this month, Latin descriptions will no longer be necessary when classifying new plants, algae or fungi.

The idea is to facilitate recording of the world’s biodiversity before it is lost to habitat degradation.It does not mean that Latin naming is going away, as some sources have mistakenly claimed (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail). Scientific naming remains useful and important, but now descriptions can be written in English.

Before, researchers had to not only name newly-discovered organisms in Latin, but also write a detailed and grammatically-correct description completely in this ancient language.It’s a difficult and time-consuming process. Just as an example, I’ve got a book on botanical Latin that’s close to 600 pages long, and it covers everything from rules of syntax to hundreds of adjectives describing leaf shape, arrangement, gradations of color and more.

The thought behind the change is that it will expedite the classification of new species, which is generally the starting point for evaluating biodiversity in a given place and then developing management and conservation guidelines to save species from extinction. Mounting environmental problems like climate change and deforestation make it an urgent issue, especially considering that scientists estimate that 20 percent of the world’s plants may be as-yet undiscovered, along with a much, much higher proportion of fungi and algae.

They’ve also rescinded the requirement that descriptions must be published in a journal; now, new species may be logged electronically instead. I hope that this shake up of protocol will help scientists move in a new and better direction with appropriate speed.

The second story has pretty exciting implications for reducing carbon emissions, but I think I need to provide some background before I can explain what’s happening.

Plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, meaning that the carbon must end up somewhere. It ends up in the wood of trees; in fact, forests are like huge storehouses for carbon that would otherwise run loose in the world making various contributions to climate change. That said, timber harvesting takes carbon out of the silvic storehouse and puts it back into the greater world. In general, this is happening more in the developing world than the developed world. In North America in particular, Mexico has the only timber industry that produces a net annual increase in carbon emissions; the driving force behind this: illegal logging.

Not that Mexican scientists, authorities or members of the public necessarily want this to happen, but illegal timber remains a multibillion-dollar trade that threatens all sorts of organisms — most famously, perhaps, the Monarch butterfly.

Background out of the way, I can give you the exciting stuff: DNA technology may provide a way to put a stop to illegal logging. Even Mexican timber stamped by the Forest Stewardship Council often breaks FSC rules, but a technique used to reconstruct the DNA of extinct animals (called polymerase chain reaction) might allow scientists to actually track the source of wood.

Even after it has been made into furniture, wood still contains DNA that can be reconstructed and used to certify wood products against fraudulent claims of FSC compliance. This will also help give teeth to laws in Europe and the U.S. designed to stop illegal timber imports from all over the world.

This doesn’t guarantee  that corruption will not find its way into the process. During the December SAF meeting, a forester from the World Forestry Center gave a presentation about the effect of illegal logging on butterfly habitat in Mexico. He explained that people with chainsaws could harvest trees in the night, drag logs through towns, and residents claimed to know nothing the next day. Whether they’re complicit or simply want no trouble, it’s clear that people can be manipulated by those interested in continuing an illicit trade.

Maybe this new technique will help, though conservationists and ecologists will still need to work hard to address the economic disparity that causes this sort of problem in the first place. I also hope that people living in such places will come to appreciate and protect their own natural resources while they can.

I’ve recently met many students from this part of the world hoping to take scientific and environmental advocacy back to their home countries and teach people the value and benefit of good management practices. Maybe I’ll be able to share more about their stories with you as the term continues.

5 Responses to “Current issues roundup”

  1. theevolutionofeating January 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

    I understand that not requiring a write-up in Latin for new species will expedite the process. However, do you think moving away from a standardized language will make it more difficult to share these discoveries in a universal way? Just curious.

    • xylem_up January 19, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

      I hope not, since English is becoming a global thing. But it’s a good point. If they’re keeping scientific names to keep things standard, I can only imagine how this might make conservation even more difficult on the ground. I’ll have to remember to ask a pro about this!

  2. Michael Gallagher January 22, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    I am reblogging this post from Xylem Up as it is a good one and an important discussion topic for the world of plant taxonomy, this decoupling of new plant species from Latin-based naming conventions. I as well am curious what the Global Plants Initiative community thinks of this in terms of accelerating new species identification and disseminating these results in a predictable, accessible way. Names can still be made in Latin, but English is also an acceptable language for plant taxonomy as well.

    So, ultimately, the questions I pose to GPI and anyone else willing to discuss are

    a. How does a naming convention in English (as well as Latin) accelerate taxonomic work? I assume it does (it does make sense), but I would love to hear an expert explain why.
    b. What are the disadvantages to such an approach?
    c. Does this have any effect on taxonomic dissemination? In short, can English based taxonomic research be as easily and accurately distributed and slotted in with past findings? I assume they can, but would love an expert’s opinion.

    Thanks for this post, Xylem Up!

    • xylem_up January 22, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      No problem, and thanks for reblogging! As for your discussion questions, I’m not sure what you mean by the first one. The naming conventions have not changed — they are still required to be binomials given in Latin. Is this hypothetical? If not, I should maybe explain it better! What changed was descriptions. Before, when a person discovered a new plant, she’d have to talk about what color various parts are, what shape and arrangement the leaves and flower parts have, any distinctive textures, etc. — all completely in Latin. So the main advantage is that someone discovering a new species doesn’t have to figure out Latin grammar, syntax and vocabulary just to log the new organism.

      And I am no expert, but I do wonder about the disadvantages. The whole idea behind scientific names is to give researchers from different places and cultures a common reference point from which to discuss and research things. I suppose that English descriptions will help jumpstart the conservation process, but only as long as natural resource professionals working in the habitat of the new organism also speak English.

      I’m also curious about your third question. I could see there being a problem with hypothetical English naming conventions, but don’t see descriptions as being too difficult to incorporate into the body of existing science. If you hear from an expert, though, please let me know… I’d love to hear the answer, too!

  3. Karson Whitworth January 28, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    Very good blog article.Really thank you! Really Cool.

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