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To start with, I am not a person having sound knowledge in biology. When I started my search for phyto-chemicals in a particular family in the plant kingdom, I got confused. The scientific papers use a particular name, and when I searched in these 2 websites, (just to name it) I got the message that some of the names are "not resolved" or "synonyms".

My questions are

  1. Biologists do they accept the names mentioned in website 1? If not where can I find authentic names?
  2. Who controls / monitors the name of these plant species?
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    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, what name are you looking for? $\endgroup$
    – Gaurav
    Mar 9, 2012 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ I would go with results from the first site you mention (www.theplantlist.org) $\endgroup$
    – Abe
    Mar 9, 2012 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ iPlant provides an automated name resolver: tnrs.iplantcollaborative.org/TNRSapp.html $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2012 at 17:10

3 Answers 3

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When it comes to plants and animals, common names clearly differ from region to region.

A first effort to univocally classify them was done in the 16th century by Carl Linnæus (see my answer to this question for some historical background).

The nomenclature of plants is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), and for animals from the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).

The fact that there are rules, however, does not imply that names are conserved over time, nor that there is a rule for everything!

As time goes by rules change, certain species may be assimilated by others, or a certain subspecies will separate and become its own, and at times name changing proposals even raise havoc in the scientific community.

In summary, it is important to remember that taxonomy poses rules that are there to facilitate talking about science. Those are not absolute rules, sometimes they are arbitrary, and therefore for certain species there is no univocal name (and surely there is no correct name).

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  • $\begingroup$ can you just share the "Official" website of ICN. I could not any hits when i googled it. $\endgroup$
    – Anil
    Mar 10, 2012 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Anil: The International Association for Plant Taxonomy hosts the full text of the Vienna code. I could not really find the latest version (Melbourne code), although the IBC2011 website may be of help. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 10, 2012 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ For completeness' sake, the Melbourne code is now up at iapt-taxon.org/nomen/main.php $\endgroup$
    – Gaurav
    Jun 3, 2015 at 9:12
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Nico provides a nice answer, but implies that the names are more fluid than they actually are.

It is possible to get an current standard nomenclature, and to update it each time the ICN releases a new edition.

The ICN requires that any changes be made by an international botanical congress, and changes are included when a new addition of the ICN is released. Also, note that the ICNCP is used for cultivated plants.

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    $\begingroup$ You misunderstood my point. What I am saying is that, well, names are names, and can change. That is why nowadays you would say Chroicocephalus ridibundus, rather than Larus ridibundus when talking about a Mediterranean Gull, although some years ago the opposite was true. That does not mean that anyone can change the names at his own will, but it is important to remember that there is no strict rule for nomenclature [continues...] $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 9, 2012 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ [continued...] The case of Drosophila Melanogaster vs Sophophora Melanogaster is a beautiful example of this flexibility: the name ought to be changed, sure, but everyone knows Drosophila by that name, so we will keep it like that, even if there are scientific reasons to opt for a change. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Mar 9, 2012 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ I was mostly pointing out that name changes are tractable through the ICN, and that the keeping up to date with the ICN is sufficient. $\endgroup$
    – Abe
    Mar 9, 2012 at 17:08
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I realize this question is very old, but there is an important point missing from the current answers: That is the difference between the nomenclature and the taxonomy.

By "taxonomy" I mean the understanding of how organisms are related to each other. Key questions here would be whether taxa sharing some group name (the same genus, for example) form a clade (i.e., there exists an ancestor whose descendants include all and only members of that genus), and whether particular taxa or specimens are the same species or not.

By "nomenclature" I mean the names applied to each taxon and groups of taxa.

The key point is that nomenclature exists within some accepted taxonomy, and that when name changes occur, it's usually because of a conflicting or updated understanding of taxonomy. The rules of nomenclature are comprehensive and quite rigid, but for taxonomy there are no rules at all. Each researcher is free to adopt a taxonomy based on their own understanding of the evidence, however within the taxonomic framework they choose, they must follow the rules of nomenclature.

A "synonym" refers to a named species that the current author considers to be a part of another, earlier named species. For example, the white-veined wintergreen, Pyrola picta Sm., was described in 1819. Later, the cryptic wintergreen, Pyrola crypta Jolles, was described in 2014 when the authors determined that molecular evidence and subtle morphological features marked some P. picta as distinct.

Botanists can (and do) have good-faith disagreements about whether these represent two species. There is no over-arching authority that makes that determination. Botanists who think they are different will use both P. picta and P. crypta, respectively. Those who think they are best considered a single species must use the name P. picta for all of them, and list P. crypta as a synonym.

The example previously given of Drosophila melanogaster possibly being renamed stems from a different issue. Each genus name is pinned to one particular species (the "type species"). In the case of Drosophila it is D. funebris. This means that if the genus Drosophila is recognized as a genus, then it must contain the species D. funebris, but not necessarily any other species. What probably happened is that a new family tree (phylogeny) of Drosophila and related genera was constructed, and D. melanogaster came out as being more closely related to flies in a different genus, than to D. funebris.

Ideally, all the members of a genus would form a clade, because, for example, it can be confusing to have Drosophila melanogaster be more closely related to some other genus, than to other members of Drosophila. So to remedy this, some fly taxonomists suggested reshuffling these taxa to make more neat clades and less of a jumble (D. funebris though, would have stayed in Drosophila).

Normally this happens and nobody notices except for the few researchers who work on that group. Here, however, scientists from all over the world in a dizzying array of disciplines have studied and published results related to "Drosophila melanogaster". It would have lead to huge headaches and confusion to rename this iconic species. In this case, a formal proposal was made to create an exception to the normal rules by changing the type species of Drosophila from D. funebris to D. melanogaster. That way, as long as Drosophila is recognized, then D. melanogaster would also exist.

One final point is that @nico's statement "surely there is no correct name," is incorrect. In the world of nomenclature "correct" is a term of art. For a particular taxonomy there is exactly one correct name. It's just that the taxonomy is subject to the interpretation of the researcher or author.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. The only way it could be slightly improved would be to provide links to back up your answer - I realize that's pretty difficult for this topic, as I don't think the rules (other than nomenclature) are defined particularly well. $\endgroup$
    – bob1
    Jul 11, 2022 at 22:37

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