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Preamble: Zoology’s Supreme Court for Names

The system of binomial nomenclature for animals (living and extinct) is among the most succinct of communication systems that has been devised. With just two names (e.g. Cancer pagurus), a unique qualifier for each and every organism that shares the planet with us, together with its ‘birth certificate’—the scholarly work and year in which it was first described can be communicated (in this case Linnaeus, 1758). Each name is unambiguous and unique: one organism, one name. Today we have about 1.5 million living animal species named. Some experts estimate we have some 8-10 million living species on Earth – which would mean over 80% of all life forms remain unnamed! And this does not even count the hundreds of thousands of extinct animal species that have been described.

This time-tested system (since1758) has served all fields of human enterprise which in one way or another involved a living organism – medicine, zoology, epidemiology, conservation, taxonomy, phylogenetics, and genetics – for two-and-a-half centuries. The system is managed by the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), established in 1895. The Commissioners, currently 26 senior scientists from 19 countries who are experts in different animal groups (and all of whom do this on their own time, with no pay) takes into account priority, prevailing usage, and other factors to help maintain nomenclatural stability to ensure that scientists and other users of names do not get confused. The major way these ends are achieved is the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, now in its 4th edition (1999), with a 2012 amendment on electronic publications, which is authored by the ICZN.

The ICZN does more than just ensure that names are unique: the Commission acts as the “Supreme Court” that manages and resolves disagreements pertaining to zoological nomenclature, some disagreements arising because strict application of the Code will create ambiguity or instability. Among these problems are some that have serious implications for business, commerce, and conservation. Commissioners discuss the cases, address concerns, listen to pleas and arguments from scientists, managers and public, and vote on the cases. Their votes are final and binding: once the Commission has made the decision, all biologists are obliged to follow the ruling for the names to be used. In some cases, there are legal consequences for ICZN decisions. Notable nomenclatural quandaries handled by the ICZN have included the names of the malarial parasites (the name Plasmodium as used today) and more recently, Drosophila (the ubiquitous laboratory fly). Even more challenging was the recent case of the highly endangered Giant Land Tortoise in Seychelles, its name now fixed as Geochelone (Aldabrachelys) gigantea.

A New Lease of Life

Every organization needs a financial arm; even the ICZN, in which Commissioners are volunteers, needs administrative and other support to function. The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature (ITZN) was established as a charity in the U.K. more than 60 years ago to manage and raise funds to keep the ICZN’s secretariat and operations functional. This includes its legal organ, the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, which publishes cases, comments, and the final results of the voting (Opinions). It was known for some years that the funds in the ITZN coffers had been declining. This was at the time that the ICZN’s roles and challenges substanially increased as biodiversity science gained importance, with the biological community growing in numbers and activities, research and publishing technologies advancing, and the influence of the internet magnifying and catalyzing these changes.

By late 2013, the ITZN will have effectively spent its last dollar, and no longer be able to support the ICZN secretariat. If this bankruptcy were to spell the end of the ICZN, how would nomenclatural problems be addressed and resolved? Would the Code be compromised, erode, and die? How would problems be managed when the “arbitrators”, “lawyers” and “judges” of nomenclatural disputes were no longer around, and there was nowhere to turn to or seek resolution?

Fortunately, the ICZN has a new lease a life within the international scientific community, albeit a temporary one. First, the National University of Singapore has agreed to host the co-ordinating part of the secretariat for the next three years. It is also symbolic since the ICZN offices have always been in the U.S. or U.K., and its move into Asia is an affirmation that ICZN is an international organization. After all, eight of the Commissioners are from the Australasia zone. Second, the Natural History Museum in London has agreed for the next few years to administer and publish the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, the main organ for disseminating ICZN cases.

A Special Meeting of the ICZN in Singapore brought 21 of 26 Commissioners together for five days in mid-November, 2013 (never before had so many Commissioners met in one place!); intensive discussions at the meeting allowed a host of important matters to be discussed and decisions to be made. They included how a distributed ICZN secretariat may function; how current and future roles can be streamlined and made more efficient as well as less costly; developing a new business plan with the National University of Singapore as well as other stakeholders using endowments as the basis for financial autonomy; revamping the operations and editorial structure of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature; finalizing discussions for the 5th edition of The Code of Zoological Nomenclature; affirming that the online version of the Official Register of Zoological Nomenclature, ZooBank, is core business; how to make electronic publication of works and names more efficient; implementing a manual on The List of Available Names, which will help stabilise the nomenclature of groups of animals; how to handle what has been labelled “taxonomic vandals,” including how to involve the taxonomic community more in electing scientists to the Commission to expand its scope and expertise. This landmark meeting will set the stage for how the ICZN operates for many years to come.

Further Reading

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith