Thursday, December 18, 2008

Would a Rosa by any other name smell as sweet?

The Psoralea/Orbexilum post raised a recurring debate I have with myself. At what point do you accept or reject changes in nomenclature? I strongly believe that science is one of the most democratic of endeavors in which one can be involved. I say this based on the notion that science is based on peer review and the general acceptance (or the failure of rejection) of ideas by a group of informed people. However, the inevitable slop that is inherent to ideas and proof easily, and often, muddy the waters.

Having become a student of botany and Midwestern flora in the late 1990's, I had to jump in and learn whatever names were given by my mentors and/or the current flora in use for the region. And I did so with little questioning simply because one doesn't realize how much grey area exists until one gains familiarity with the sticky issues.

Case in point; the Psoralea/Orbexilum situation. If you were a botanist before 1930 (prior to the switch from the American Code of Botanical Nomenclature to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) there were many names like Orbexilum that you are seeing come back into usage. Also, there are names that have changed more recently such as Aster/Symphyotrichum. So the question is, how do you (and by "you" i mean YOU specifically and not in the collective sense) know what name to use?


Scott said...

Leave it to Justin to come up with the thought-provoking debate topics.

I think you have to start with your local flora, compiled by the local experts, especially when you have a recently published local flora. These almost always include information on synonyms, and in the case of Plants of the Chicago Region, there is often a brief description of applicable papers for questionable name changes. The only way to form an intelligent opinion on what name to use is to read all of those papers and see if the name change is legitimate. In many cases, when there was a previously published name that had just been lost for many years, it seems obvious to go back to using that originally published name. When the reason for change in nomenclature is more suspect and a result of sometimes slightly sloppy science, I'd be more inclined to stick with the old name until it can be proven to me that the change is really worth it. Until I have time to personally review the reason for each individual change in nomenclature, I have to go with the best sources of information (FNA, Plants Database, local flora, etc.) that I have available to me.

Usually, I just do what Justin does.

Justin said...

Scott's approach is that of the responsible botanist. But who has the time to keep up with all the new changes on top of investigating the old ones?

As Scott said, I guess you have to start with a regional flora that best fits what you are seeing in the field. Unfortunately, this only provides a foundation upon which to START learning. I have found that regional floras get away with ignoring the larger taxonomic problems in groups because they only have to include their regional representatives. Over use of regional floras can also lead to the staunch patriotic attachment to nomenclature that is based more on iconic familiarity and xenophobia than science. I certainly fell prey to this when the new volumes of "Flora of Missouri" came out. However, I quickly realized that George Yatskievych made many tremendous improvements from Steyermark's "Flora of Missouri". He also did/does a great job of explaining many of the taxonomic changes, or at least directing you to the pertinent literature.

Of course, many of the recent changes in taxonomy have occurred above the level of genus. Molecular taxonomy continues to find new and exciting ways to manipulate DNA in their "Focus on the Family" approach. Unfortunately, there is little resistance. I say unfortunate because good science needs resistance. It isn't that traditional taxonomy has no defense, but rather that they have no power (by power I mean in terms of money and numbers).

Back to the species nomenclature issue....
Wouldn't it be great, if there was a resource you could go to that would tell you why a name changed, what type of data the change is based on (speculative, morphological, molecular, simple terms priority, etc.), who made the change and would also give you as synopsis of the research? If it was on-line, it could be updated and added to regularly.

The resource could have a committee that reviewed the data then voted on whether it agreed or disagreed with various nomenclature. That would be sweet!

Keith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith said...

For a weekend wildflower-sniffer it’s a challenge just trying to study, learn, and review local plants. Regardless of the latest name in vogue, in my mind a plant still goes by the name that I first learned. So I may call out “Agalinis purpurea,” but to me it is and will always be Gerardia purpurea, Purple Gerardia. Since I don’t have the time nor depth of understanding necessary to research and question nomenclatural changes, my approach is to follow the treatment of local authorities in blind faith. I really have no other choice.

The famous Plants of the Chicago Region is being updated and will be published under a new title, and will include an astounding amount of information on plant-insect and plant-bird interactions, along with descriptions of plants! An article detailing the revision by Jerry Wilhelm and Laura Rericha, as well as the pioneering work by the legendary Floyd Swink, was recently posted on the website of Conservation Design Forum. See link below. Jerry will be giving a talk on this topic at the Wild Things conference in Chicago in February (where Doug Ladd will be the keynote speaker). In the article there is a copy of the Amelanchier plate from the new book, and if you look right above Amelanchier, you’ll see an outrageous amount of insect and bird information as it relates to the oft-ignored Ambrosia trifida (Giant Ragweed).,%20a%20Memoir%20and%20Prospectus.pdf

Justin said...

I think 99% of people working with plants and their names (including myself) are guilty of the "blind faith" philosophy; more as a matter necessity than desire. In most situation it doesn't matter much, and there is little shame in it.

It was nice to read the different evolutions in nomenclatural presentation that Plants of the Chicago Region has undergone. It was also nice to have a sneak peek at a page. 2019? Wow!

Scott said...

Yeah... thanks Keith, for sending that link.

I made it sound like I research all of the plant name changes. Unfortunately, I have little time to do things like that. To clarify, that would be my ideal way of making decisions on what names to use, but most of the time I too follow the "blind faith" method.

Keith said...

There's a neat little story in a footnote on the Amelanchier plate:

5 One of the more dramatic dialogues in botanical history is a must read. In a scholarly diatribe, Merritt Lyndon Fernald
(1945a) panned George Neville Jones’s, Flora of Illinois, so unremittingly and authoritatively as to cause the reader to be certain that George Neville Jones was the worst botanist ever to have operated a hand lens. Jones
(1945b), not permitted to respond in Rhodora, which Fernald edited and from which he threw his slings and arrows, published a wonderfully erudite and convincing rejoinder in the American Midland Naturalist, a more local journal. The student might learn from this that, however esteemed, scholars are more often rich in opinion than in ultimate wisdom. A year later, Jones (1946) published the American Species of Amelanchier. Four years later, Fernald (1950a), in a kind of final tit for the previous tat, hurled a last swipe at Jones: “A. Wiegandii E. L. Nielsen (for Karl McKay Wiegand, 1893-1942, painstaking and accurate student of the genus).”

James C. Trager said...

Re: Ambrosia trifida account.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Jerry Wilhelm at his CDF office, and he showed off the giant ragweed account. It's a great example of what is to come in what I think will be a whole new sort of floristic treatise -- the wave of the future, I hope. Who knew this disparaged, if native, plant had so much happening around, on and inside it?

As for the original question, I try to follow the big resources -- FNA, plants database, TAMU, etc. --especially where they all agree.