Fossil plant descriptions

John McNeill johnm at ROM.ON.CA
Sat Jan 18 12:28:42 CST 1997

At 22:17 on 17 January, Kyle Williams, Morris Arboretum and the
Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, wrote:

>In the December issue of the American Journal of Botany there is
>description of a new species of fossil pine.  I was surprised that
>there was no Latin description anywhere in the article.  I then
>looked in the botanical code and it was clear that all vascular and
>non-vascular plants as well as algae must have a Latin description
>(or diagnosis) but fossil plants can have the description in any
>language (as no language was specifically indicated and the index
>states it is not required to be in Latin).  Does anyone know the
>reason for this exception?

First of all, Kyle, you must have been looking at an outdated edition
of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.  The 1994 Tokyo
Code (Art. 36.3) states that "In order to be validly published
["established"], a name of a new taxon of fossil plants published on
or after 1 January 1996 must be accompanied by a Latin or English
description or diagnosis or by reference to a previously and
effectively published ["published"] Latin or English description or
diagnosis."  [For clarity, I have inserted in square brackets the
recommended bionomenclature terminology, where this differs from the

But as to the reason, I can only give the very general one that, had
the requirement for a Latin diagnosis introduced by the 1930 Cambridge
Congress and effective 1 January 1935 been maintained for fossil
plants, so many widely accepted names of fossil plants would not have
been established (validly published, Bot, / available, Zoo.) that this
exception was made and for many years no language requirement was
specified for diagnoses of new fossil taxa (as is also the case for
all organisms falling under the ICZN).  The likely cause of this is
the segregation of much of palaeobotanical literature (particularly,
but not exclusively, that dealing with fossil spores and fossil
"algae") from the mainstream of botanical taxonomy.  Many who publish
names of fossils falling under the ICBN have a background that is more
geological (stratigraphical) than botanical.

As the sign-off indicates, I am moving offices and I only have the
current editions of the Codes handy, but I am sure that Bill Chaloner
or Al Traverse or other members of the [nomenclatural] Committee on
Fossils can enlighten you more precisely as to when the adverse
effects of the Cambridge rule were appreciated - indeed it is possible
that fossils were exempt from the Latin provision even at Cambridge.

John McNeill

From: John McNeill, Director, Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park,
      Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2C6, Canada.
      Tel.: 416-586-5639      Fax: 416-586-8044
      e-mail: johnm at

After 1 February:  Director Emeritus.  Tel. AND fax # 416-586-5744

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