Species description

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A species description or type description[citation needed] is a formal description of a newly discovered species, usually in the form of a scientific paper. Its purpose is to give a clear description of a new species of organism and explain how it differs from species which have been described previously, or are related. The species description also contains photographs or other illustrations of the type material and explains in which museums the holotype (and other types such as paratypes) have been deposited. The publication in which the species is described gives the new species a formal scientific name. Today, some 1.9 million species have been discovered and named, out of some 8.7 million that may actually exist on Earth.[1]

It is customary for scientists to introduce all relevant new findings and research in a scientific paper, which is scrutinised by other scientists (peer review) and, if accepted, published in a scientific journal of the appropriate discipline; this applies to the discovery and naming of a new species or other taxon. In many cases the scientific community will not formally accept the existence of a new species until a species description has been published, even when it may seem obvious that the species is indeed new.

Naming process[edit]

A name of a new species becomes valid with the date of publication of its formal scientific description. Once the discoverer/scientist has performed the necessary research to determine that the discovered creature represents a new and formerly undescribed species, the scientific results are summarized in a manuscript to be submitted to a scientific journal.

A scientific species description to establish a new species name must fulfill several formal criteria (e.g. selection of a so-called type specimen), fixed by the ICZN or ICN. These criteria are designed to ensure that the species name is clear and unambiguous. The ICZN further states that "Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence."[2]

It is a common misconception that species names must be expressed in Latin, or in Latinized English. While this is required in certain cases, it is not an absolute requirement. A species name must be expressed in the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, but many species names come from other languages - such as Erythroxylum coca, which is derived from the South American Quechua language. A species name need not even be a word from any language, provided that it is not confusing or unpronounceable. So "bazzungi" might be acceptable where "gtdkrf" would not.

Once the manuscript has been accepted for publication and printed,[3] the new species name is officially created (and the new species officially existent).

Once a species name has been assigned and approved, it can generally not be changed except in the case of error. For example, a species of beetle (Anophthalmus hitleri) was named by a German collector after Adolf Hitler in 1933 when he had recently become chancellor of Germany, with Hitler sending a letter expressing his gratitude.[4] It is not clear whether such a dedication would be considered acceptable or appropriate today, but the name remains in use.[4]

Religious names are not allowed, and if a species is named with a religion-related name then the name is changed at first opportunity.[4] Species names have been chosen on many different bases. Most common is a naming for the species' external appearance, its origin, or the species name is a dedication for a certain person. Examples would include a bat species named for the two stripes on its back (Saccopteryx bilineata), a frog named for its Bolivian origin (Phyllomedusa boliviana), and an ant species dedicated to the actor Harrison Ford (Pheidole harrisonfordi). A scientific name in honor of a person or persons is a known as a taxonomic patronym or patronymic.[5][6]

A number of humorous species names also exist. Literary examples include the genus name Borogovia (an extinct dinosaur), which is named after the borogove, a mythical character from Lewis Carrol's poem "Jabberwocky". A second example, Macrocarpaea apparata (a tall plant) was named after the magical spell "to apparate" from the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling, as it seemed to appear out of nowhere.[7]

Species names recognizing benefactors[edit]

Species have frequently been named by scientists in recognition of supporters and benefactors. For example, the genus Victoria (a flowering waterplant) was named in honour of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. More recently, a species of lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the actor John Cleese in recognition of his work to promote the plight of lemurs in Madagascar.

Non-profit ecological organizations may also allow benefactors to name new species in exchange for financial support for taxonomic research and nature conservation. This idea was first developed by Gerhard Haszprunar, a professor of systematic zoology at the University of Munich and director of the State Zoological Collection in Munich. It has since expanded worldwide through efforts by various non-profit and conservation organizations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Audubon Society, and Canada’s Nature Discovery Fund. A German non-profit organisation (gemeinnütziger Verein), BIOPAT - Patrons for Biodiversity has raised more than $450,000 for research and conservation through sponsorship of over 100 species using this model.[8]

Perhaps the best known individual example of this system is the Callicebus aureipalatii (or "monkey of the Golden Palace"), which was named after the Golden Palace organization in recognition of a $650,000 contribution to the Madidi National Park in Bolivia in 2005.[9]

History of species descriptions[edit]

Original title page of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae, published in 1735.

Early biologists often published entire volumes or multiple-volume works of descriptions in an attempt to catalog all known species. These catalogs typically featured extensive descriptions of each species and were often illustrated upon reprinting.

The first of these large catalogs was Aristotle's History of Animals, published around 343 B.C. Aristotle included descriptions of creatures, mostly fish and invertebrates, in his homeland, and several mythological creatures rumored to live in far-away lands, such as the manticore.

In 77 A.D. Pliny the Elder dedicated several volumes of his Natural History to the description of all life forms he knew to exist. He appears to have read Aristotle's work, since he writes about many of the same far-away mythological creatures.

Toward the end of the 12th century, Konungs skuggsjá, an Old Norse philosophical didactic work, featured several descriptions of the whales, seals, and monsters of the Icelandic seas. These descriptions were brief and often erroneous, and a description of the mermaid and a rare island-like sea monster called Hafgufu was included. The author was hesitant to mention the beast (known today to be fictitious) for fear of its size, but felt it was important enough to be included in his descriptions.[10]

However, the earliest recognized species authority is Linnaeus, who standardized the modern taxonomy system beginning with his Systema Naturae in 1735.[11]

As the catalog of known species was increasing rapidly, it became impractical to maintain a single work documenting every species. Publishing a paper documenting a single species was much faster and could be done by scientists with less broadened scopes of study. For example, a scientist who discovered a new species of insect would not need to understand plants, or frogs, or even insects which did not resemble the species, but would only need to understand closely related insects.

Modern species descriptions[edit]

Formal species descriptions today follow strict guidelines set forth by the codes of nomenclature. Very detailed formal descriptions are made by scientists, who usually study the organism closely for a considerable time. A diagnosis may be used instead of,[12] or as well as[13] the description. A diagnosis specifies the distinction between the new species and other species.

Rates of species description[edit]

According to the RetroSOS report,[14] the following numbers of species have been described each year since 2000.

Year Total number of species descriptions New insect species described
2000 17,045 8,241
2001 17,003 7,775
2002 16,990 8,723
2003 17,357 8,844
2004 17,381 9,127
2005 16,424 8,485
2006 17,659 8,994
2007 18,689 9,651
2008 18,531 9,020
2009 19,232 9,738

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mora, C.; et al. (August 23, 2011). "How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?". PLoS Biology 9: e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127. PMC 3160336. PMID 21886479. 
  2. ^ "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Recommendation 25C". Retrieved June 18, 2011. 
  3. ^ One example of an abstract of an article naming a new species can be found at "Methylobacterium cerastii sp. nov., a novel species isolated from the leaf surface of Cerastium holosteoides". Retrieved June 18, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c [1]
  5. ^ Capinera, John L., ed. (2008). Encyclopedia of Entomology (2nd ed.). Dordrecht: Springer. p. 2765. ISBN 1402062427. 
  6. ^ Strahan, Ronald; Conder, Pamela, eds. (2007). Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals. Collingwood, Victoria: Csiro Publishing. p. 15. 
  7. ^ "Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature". Retrieved June 18, 2011. 
  8. ^ "Financing conservation efforts by selling naming rights of new species". Retrieved June 18, 2011. 
  9. ^ "Online auction raises funds for Bolivian park". Retrieved June 18, 2011. 
  10. ^ Konungs skuggsjá (in Norwegian). 
  11. ^ Linnaeus, C. (1735). Systema Naturae. 
  12. ^ McNeill, J.; Barrie, F.R.; Buck, W.R.; Demoulin, V.; Greuter, W.; Hawksworth, D.L.; Herendeen, P.S.; Knapp, S.; Marhold, K.; Prado, J.; Prud'homme Van Reine, W.F.; Smith, G.F.; Wiersema, J.H.; Turland, N.J. (2012). International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Melbourne Code) adopted by the Eighteenth International Botanical Congress Melbourne, Australia, July 2011. Regnum Vegetabile 154. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag KG. ISBN 978-3-87429-425-6.  article 38
  13. ^ International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (1999). "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Fourth Edition, adopted by the International Union of Biological Sciences".  article 13
  14. ^ Quentin Wheeler; Sara Pennak (January 18, 2012). Retro SOS 2000-2009: A Decade of Species Discovery in Review (Report). International Institute for Species Exploration, Arizona State University. Retrieved April 25, 2013. 

Other sources[edit]

  • Winston, Judith E. 1999. Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure For Biologists. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-06824-7