When worlds collide

Late last year I went to the joint conference of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society and the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network held at Te Papa in Wellington, and the New Zealand Ecological Society Conference held at Lincoln University. At both conferences there were talks and discussions on the use of Te Reo Māori by systematists to name new species. I couldn’t help but feel a lot of what I was hearing was based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of binomial nomenclature exacerbated by two and a half centuries of bad practice. In particular, the dissension is about the use of Te Reo to form Latin names, but interestingly often referred to as “to name a new species” without mention of vernacular or common names! Of concern to Māori is the use of peoples’ names, place names, organism names to form the Latin binomial without an understanding of their whakapapa and without consultation and agreement from Māori.

Whakapapa – connection, lineage, or genealogy between humans and ecosystems and all flora and fauna. Māori seek to understand the total environment or whole system and its connections through whakapapa, not just a part of these systems, and their perspective today is holistic and integrated (Hamsworth and Awatere, 2013)

So, let’s go back to the beginning – why Latin? In the middle ages this was the language of the church, the church ran the universities, so if you could speak Latin you could communicate with educated people all over Europe no matter what their native tongue. It was the practice in the late Middle Ages to use Latin to describe a “species” first with a group name, followed by a descriptive sentence. For example, Arum summis labris degustantes mutos reddens which translates as the arum lily which strikes dumb those who do but taste it. It’s a wonderful way to identify the species but not a lot of use in the field unless you are prepared to eat it.

With the Renaissance, the Age of Exploration, and the Enlightenment, European knowledge of the natural world grew tremendously and a way to structure this knowledge was needed. Jump to Carl Linnaeus born in Sweden in 1707. Linnaeus took the group or generic name, in our example Arum, and gave the species a single word that would separate it from all other arum lilies, in this case maculata, Arum maculata, meaning spotted leaves, the arum lily with the spotted leaves. This was the key character that set this species apart from other species of arum lilies.

What Linnaeus was doing, in old speak, was creating a filename tag, say for a hanging file, into which all new information about a species could be placed, accumulated and retrieved. The file could also be re-organised amongst other files as the higher-level classifications changed. In new speak, he had created the first consistent metadata that would be the key to all the data and knowledge that was being accumulated about a species. I am suggesting here that the Latin binomial not be viewed as a name, but as prime metadata. However, other scientists both professional and amateurs have failed to appreciate the binomial as metadata and have treated it as the “one true name”.

Is there is a degree of snobbery in here? [photo Geoff Ridley]

There have also been significant deviations from the Linnaean ideal for the species epithet including such lazy practices as the use of geographic names, and naming species to reward patronage or honour the famous. These names provide no essential clue to the species identification. As Latin and classical Greek words were used up systematists also drew on other languages to provide the species epithet. In the New Zealand context, this has led to inadvertent conflict with Māori by developing binomials drawn from Te Reo.

As a young man, in a mostly white university, in a country that was just beginning to see itself as bicultural I made the decision to go back to first principles in naming my new species. However, I decided I should draw my descriptive species epithet from Te Reo. The words I used were: taiepa, a fence; nehuta, dust; peke (Latinised to pekeoides) a sack or bag; karea, ripples; puma + tona, grey and warts; pareparina, a palisade; and mumura, blushing. As a white boy in a white world I didn’t know to consult, and I didn’t know how to consult anyway and looking back now I hope I did not create offence.

Looking forward, and only thinking about what we should do in Aotearoa New Zealand I think we should go back to first principles and use only descriptive species epithets and not use peoples’ names, place names, or other organism names from any language. However, if it is acceptable to Māori use Te Reo as a source of descriptive epithets, as I did for the Amanita, it needs to be on the understanding that it conforms to the various codes of biological nomenclature. At the same time as describing a new species we should be asking Māori if they want to supply a Te Reo name that can be linked to the Latin binomial but, on the understanding, there may be several such names to meet regional differences. For instance, Hericium novae-zelandiae (this is a lazy name, see above) is pekepekekiore in Te Reo and the icicle tooth fungus in vernacular English.

It is something to think about.


Harmsworth GR, Awatere S 2013. Indigenous Māori knowledge and perspectives of ecosystems. In Dymond JR ed. Ecosystem services in New Zealand – conditions and trends. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand

McClellan PH 2019. Taxonomic punchlines: metadata in biology, Historical Biology

Newton DP 1986. The world view of Linnaeus. Journal of Biological Education 20: 175-178

Ridley GS 2004. A system for the development of English language names for agarics and boletes in New Zealand (And Australia?). Australasian Mycologist 23(1): 27-30

Knapp S 2000. What’s in a name? Linnaeus’ marginal jottings created order out of botanical chaos. Nature 408 (6808, 2 November): 33



  1. Its enough to make your head hurt! But I think you make a good argument about the importance of binomials and that the epithet should be purely descriptive.


  2. The name Hericium novae-zelandiae …

    This was originally named by William colenso in 1889 as Hydnum novae-zelandiae. Of the 20 fungal species that Colenso named it is the only one referring to New Zealand. Until recently this species was regarded as a synonym of the northern hemisphere Herciium coralloides. With the advent of sequence data we now know that our species is distinct. This is a very common occurrence in modern mycology, where species from different locations look morphologically identical and yet we now know they represent different species. The only easy way of differentiating them is to know the place they came from. In this case that is New Zealand, and so Hericium novae-zelandiae is apt ‘metadata’. Thus the adoption of place-names in the Latin binomial of species, whatever their linguistic origin, are very useful for distinguishing cryptic fungal species. Less true in botany I suspect where cryptic species are less common.


  3. It isn’t a criticism of its current use, which is governed by the Code, but of the trend by taxonomist to use a geographical name as a separating/definitive character. For instance, Armillaria novae-zelandiae, described from New Zealand and the name suggests limited to New Zealand – the New Zealand Armillaria. That was in 1964. Now we know that it occurs in Tasmania, right up the east coast of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Chatham Islands, and Argentina. So the specific epithet has no value other than as a file label. Now, in 2016 we have a new species Armillaria aotearoa, which is Te Reo for New Zealand so essential we have two species with the definitive character of “from New Zealand”! Not a lot of use. I’m just suggesting if we go back to first principles we might get more informative names. I’m not pure as the first species I described was Phaeosphearia waikanaensis, the Phaeosphearia from Waikanae, but I wouldn’t do again.


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