The Zoobank API: Tools for Verifying the Originality of Species

Greg Bates, March 1st, 2013

ZooBankQuick, what do these ten people have in common: Richard Dawkins, Bob Marley, Beyonce, John Cleese, George Bush, Kate Winslet, Adolph Hitler, David Attenborough and Hugh Hefner? Forget that question for the moment and concentrate on something more important. Zoobank, the world’s official registry of Zoological Nomenclature, has released the Zoobank API.

The website for the API states that responses are either JSON or HTML formatted, and focius on just four data types: names for animals that have been published, publications that contain those names, authors of the works containing the names and type specimens for scientific names of animals. The reason publications are kept in the database is that they play an integral part in the process of awarding original names. With over 17,000 new species identified every year, its small wonder we need an international organization to keep names straight.

As Dr Ellinor Michel from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature told the  BBC, the process for naming a newly found species is straightforward,

“First of all you need to identify a new species, found either in the field or in a museum, and support that identification of its uniqueness using data on the morphology (physical features) or genetics. The species needs to be clearly, repeatedly different from other species that it might be related to.

You then publish the findings in a scientific journal, ideally one that is peer-reviewed. This means that other specialists subject your work to critical scrutiny, improving the scientific reliability all around. [Thus the database of publications.]

At this point you can give it a name, that you feel reflects well on the discovery – naming it for a special feature, for the place it occurs, or in honour of someone you respect. If you publish it according to the rules, the name sticks for perpetuity.”

The hard part, of course, is finding that animal and recognizing it as unique. And that’s what our ten famous people above have in common: they each have a species or genus named after them. Usually, it is a sign of respect for the person whose name the animal is given. The Bob Marley Parasite, for example, was so named because the discoverer loved Marley’s music.

What then, of the George Bush Beetle? A not so subtle political jab in the ribs? Readers may be surprised to learn, as the BBC reports, that

“Former US president George Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld all had beetles named after them in 2005. Quentin Wheeler, one of the scientists who discovered them, said the decision to name three species after politicians had nothing to do with physical features. “One has to be creative with names,” he told the BBC. “We are two of the only politically conservative scientists around, and we decided to stick our necks out.” He said Mr Bush called him to thank him for the gesture.”

In our surprise here’s a lesson about the heart of science–it’s all about refusing to jump to conclusions.

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