Book Tour: The Art of Naming

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Specimen of Gaga marginata (Kunth) Fay W.Li & Windham (formerly Cheilanthes marginata) from the United State National Herbarium

This is the last post in a series (1,2,3) on books I read on a recent trip.  I found The Art of Naming by Michael Ohl (2018) on an earlier trip and brought it along on this one.  Ohl is a German entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, and he tackles many aspects of the question: how do species get named?  This is a work about nomenclature and taxonomy that sometimes borders on the technical, but always in a way that’s accessible to the general reader.  Of course, there is the issue of whether or not the general reader really wants to know this much about nomenclature, but Ohl provides enough good stories along the way to keep his audience engaged.  This work was translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer, and I think she is also partly responsible for its readability, though there is always a slight hint of the difficulty of smooth translation.

While understandably Ohl takes most of his examples from the insect world, or at least from zoology, I found this a fascinating book because he is so good at describing the ins and outs of taxonomy, a field in which I am definitely not an expert.  Yes, the rules of nomenclature are different in zoology and botany, but most of the problems are similar.  For example, at one point he deals with the issue of those who have named a great many taxa, thousands of them.  Here he refers to an article by Daniel Bebber and coauthors (2010) in which they describe “big hitters,” those who collected many new species.  In their study Bebber’s group found that just 2% of plant collectors were responsible for over half the type specimens in a sample of 100,000 types.

Ohl found “big hitters” in entomology as well, but they were not collectors, rather those who described and named new species.  There are such individuals in botany as well, and in both cases, their reputations are not all stellar.  A Ohl notes, taxonomy seems to cause a certain mania in some practitioners, a passion for naming as many new species as possible.  A number of these individuals are considered “splitters,” focusing on small differences and tending to write brief descriptions.  In naming so many species, it’s not surprising that they might name the same species twice or even three times, and a taxonomist’s rate of synonymy is considered a measure of reliability, the lower the better.  Ohl relates several stories of taxonomists gone wild, but tempers his criticism by mentioning all the good work these individuals did as well.  This sense of balance is what makes the book so interesting; he is not afraid to look at both sides of nomenclatural debates.

One topic Ohl covers in detail is what makes a name acceptable or not.  The rules here vary somewhat from those in botany, but many are similar:  not naming a species after oneself, following rules of Latin or Greek grammar, and not applying a name that has already been used.  He relishes the subject of naming as a way to draw attention to a species, or to the one for whom it’s named.  I know there is a fern genus named after Lady Gaga, but now I know that there’s a spider named for David Bowie.  Ohl also tackles the topic of naming as fund-raising, which apparently has been going on for some time.  The German organization BIOPAT was founded in 1999; it makes undescribed species available to donors.  Rates start at 2,600 euros per species and depend on what the market will bear, in other words how attractive in some way the species is.  By 2013, the organization had raised 620,000 euros.  But there are other approaches, including an auction in 2005 to name a new titi monkey species in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park.  The British biologist describing it, Robert Wallace, decided to set up the auction to raise money for the Park.  Ultimately, the name was “sold” for $650,000 to the Golden Palace online casino, and now the monkey is Callicebus aureipalatti.  There are auctions on eBay to name plants, but the stakes are definitely not that high.  In this survey, Ohl again balances questions about naming-for-money against the sadly underfunded world of conservation biology.

Besides telling such fascinating stories, Ohl also deals with fundamental issues:  “getting at the essence of a species is one of the most difficult, controversial, and yet most important questions in biology” (p. 84).  He explores the issue in terms of deciding on a type specimen or specimens and what this designation signifies:  “Type species are not representatives of biological species from representations of names of biological species” (p. 108).  He points out how types have become essential in taxonomy and discusses the ins and outs of designating a lectotype (in zoology, a type designated after the species has already been named) for humans.  It was in fact a botanist, William Stearn, who chose Carl Linnaeus’s remains as representative for all Homo sapiens.  While Ohl doesn’t deal much with the digitization of natural history collections and using bioinformatics to bring order to nomenclature, that may be because these projects are farther along in botany than in zoology.  In any case, this was definitely a good read on a rather “interesting” trip north.


Bebber, D. P., Carine, M. A., Wood, J. R. I., Wortley, A. H., Harris, D. J., Prance, G. T., … Scotland, R. W. (2010). Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 22169–22171.

Ohl, M. (2018). The Art of Naming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1959). The background of Linnaeus’s contributions to the nomenclature and methods of systematic biology. Systematic Zoology, 8(1), 4–22.


Book Tour: Francis Hallé

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In this series of posts, I’m discussing books I read during my trip to northern states visiting relatives.  On the way I stopped in Philadelphia (see last post) and went to the Joseph Fox Bookshop, one of my favorites.  I always find surprising and interesting books there.  One of the discoveries on this trip was Atlas of Poetic Botany by Francis Hallé (2018), professor emeritus of botany at the University of Montpellier in France.  He is noted for his research on tropical plants, particularly trees.  He coauthored a book on the architecture of trees in the tropics (1978), and he envisioned studies in the forest canopy.  His first idea was to use a dirigible to move through the upper reaches of trees, but winds made this impractical.  Then he worked with a group of engineers and botanists to create a raft suspended from a dirigible.  Others produced alternative designs with systems of pulleys and cranes.  These technologies made it possible for biologists to finally spend more time in the upper reaches of tall tropical trees, studying the animals and plants living there and the intricate relationships among them.

Hallé is now 80 years old, but he is still passionate about tropical plants, as his Atlas reveals.  This is a book aimed at the general reader and its illustrations, drawn by the author, are as fascinating as the text.  In his introduction, he makes a strong case for the continuing need for botanists to draw despite access to photography that can record a plant’s form and color in a second.  For Hallé, the advantage of drawing is what others would see as its disadvantage—it takes time:  “To seize an ephemeral moment, as photography does, is to content oneself with limited information.  The extended time required for drawing, on the other hand, amounts to a dialogue with the plant” (p. 8).  That’s a lovely phrase, “a dialogue with the plant,” and isn’t that what botanical research is about?  Hallé also points out that this process involves the relationship not only between plant and observer, but between the observer’s hand and brain.  He then adds that botanical drawings give rise to emotions, luring the observer into further investigation of the subject.

A first glance at Hallé’s drawings might be disappointing to those accustomed to standard botanical illustrations.  His might be considered naïve but that’s their charm:  they are meant to teach, to be understandable to nonbotanists.  Hallé’s chief tool is a pencil and not a very sharp one at that.  Once he has the basic drawing down, he goes over the pencil lines with pen and ink, sometimes adding color.  He might introduce a figure into the drawing, a human or an animal, to give a sense of scale.  He does follow a few botanical illustration conventions such as adding enlargements of flowers or other pertinent structures.  Some drawings are very diagrammatic, but almost all have a slight sense of whimsy.  At times Hallé plays with scale as when he emphasizes the gigantic size of Gunnera peltata by adding a small artist drawing the plant, one who is in reality squirrel-sized in relation to the leaves (see photo).  There are a couple of videos on the web that illustrate his technique.  One was done in conjunction with an exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Garden of poster-sized enlargements of his work scattered through the garden.  The other was in a series made along with a documentary on conserving tropical rainforests.  This was a collaboration between Hallé and the filmmaker Luc Jacquet who created another documentary, March of the Penguins.

In the videos and the book, Hallé’s passion for tropical botany is evident.  He is fascinated not just by the trees, but by all the life connected to them.  He is intrigued by plants that have developed what might be considered odd adaptations to survive in unusual environments.  He notes that the flowers of the Amazonian tree Duguetia calycina are not to be found in its canopy.  Instead, its lower branches hang down to the ground, grow underground to some distance from the trunk, and then produce flowers with a pleasant fragrance.  They are probably pollinated by flying insects, but little is known about the tree or its relationships.  Hallé adds that a totally different species from another family and growing in Cameroon, Caloncoba flagelliflora, has a similar habit, producing tiny white flowers on the forest floor.  Another of my favorites is a parasitic laurel, Cassytha filiformis.  A tropical vine, it looks like a typical laurel when young, but once it finds a plant to crawl on, most of its chlorophyll disappears, and it fades to a yellow color after it punctures the host’s bark to extract nutrients.  This vine can engulf a tree to the point that, as Hallé writes, huge mango trees in Thailand were “covered by a Cassytha; they looked like they were wearing giant yellow wigs” (p. 60).

I hope I’ve given some sense of how “poetic” in a visual as well as verbal sense this book is.  It introduced me to an author and to plants that are equally intriguing.  And it reminded me once again of how important art is to botanical science.  If you want to learn more about Hallé’s approach, there is a booklet online that describes a workshop he gave, along with Peter Del Tredeci, on tree architecture to students in the University of Virginia’s Landscape Architecture program.


Hallé, F. (2018). Atlas of Poetic Botany. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hallé, F., Oldeman, R. A. A., & Tomlinson, P. B. (1978). Tropical Trees and Forests: An Architectural Analysis. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Plants in Sweden: Herbaria 3.0

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Herbaria 3.0 website

In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed various aspects of my trip to Sweden, and now I finally want to get to why I traveled there.  I had been invited to join a group of researchers headed by Tina Gianquitto, an associate professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines, and her co-principal investigator, Dawn Sanders of Gothenburg University in Sweden, where our group met.  Also involved are Lauren LaFauci of Sweden’s Linköping University and Terry Hodge of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  The project is called Herbaria 3.0 and is funded by Swedish environmental agencies through the Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory hosted at Linköping University.  In this program, fifteen projects were awarded “seed money” to explore ways that diverse disciplines can work together on environmental issues.

The title Herbaria 3.0 is explained this way on the project’s newly-launched website, which is becoming a platform for sharing stories about plants and people:  “The original herbaria constitute the ‘1.0’ of our project; the collection of these specimens in real and digital herbaria constitute the ‘2.0.’  In ‘Herbaria 3.0,’ we offer a place for the telling and retelling of plant stories, revealing hidden histories, and provoking new narratives.  Here we aim to create a bright spot of hope, just as plants have shown resilience in the face of change.”  As to the why of the project, we wrote:  “We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships.  Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”

When I say that “we wrote” this, I mean it quite literally.  Two of us (Tina and Lauren) are professors of literature, so they guided us into using words carefully.  That’s fitting, since this project is as much about words as it is about plants.  It involves people’s memories and ideas about plants put into words to share with others.  We tested out our ideas about the website by sharing some of our own stories about plants.  Terry said that he first became really aware of plants as a high school student working in a nursery.  His job was to water the trees, and he learned that he had to attend to each one of them because they had different needs; he thus began to see the trees.  Tina shared a story about a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii that has been in her family for years.  When she told this story to Italian friends, they said that in Italy it’s not known as a Christmas cactus but as mother-in-law’s tongue.  In the US, the snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata is saddled with that name; both have sharp leaves.  For Terry and Tina, there are emotional ties in these memories, and that’s part of what we are trying to emphasize in our project:  humans have feelings about plants, and this aspect of our relationship with nature needs to be foregrounded.

In the earlier Beyond Plant Blindness project that Dawn Sanders headed (see earlier posts), researchers asked student teachers simply:  “What is your favorite plant and why?”  Irma Brkovic, a psychologist at Gothenburg University, coded the answers and found that they usually involved emotions:  words like “love” and “feel” were used often.  In many cases, as with Terry and Tina, the answers entailed memories, stories, and family.  There was real connection with the plants.  Our aim in Herbaria 3.0 is to foreground these connections in the digital world, and broaden people’s relationships with each other as well as with plants.  Here “herbaria” is being used as a metaphor for a collection of plants, plants that are linked to people.  In botanical herbaria, real plants are collected and preserved; in ours, stories about plants are collected and linked to digital herbarium records.  So a story about the Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii will link to a specimen for this species, as well as to other information about the plant and its metaphorical relationships.  There will also be other images because most of us fall in love with plants by looking at them.   Photographs, paintings, and sculptures will be used because plants are so visually appealing, they deserve to be presented in visually exciting ways.  And since the project involves a metaphor, there’ll be links to poetry and fiction.  In other words, we plan to make Herbaria 3.0 a hub for the digital humanities and sciences, a place where connections among people and disciplines can be formed through plants.  In the process, we also hope that there will be a deepening concern for the environment, for plants as fundamentals components of our lives and our ecosystems.

This seems to be a lot to ask of one website, and especially one that is being created by a small group of people with a small grant.  However, remember, this is a Seed Box grant.  Consider what an acorn eventually becomes, or a tiny orchid seed.  What better metaphor could there be for our efforts?  No wonder we are optimistic about what we can achieve.  If you want to see how we are doing, please visit the Herbaria 3.0 website and follow us Instagram (Herbaria3.0).  Also, share your plant stories and encourage others to do so.  If we are going to grow into an oak, we are going to need a great deal of fertilizer that only you can provide.

Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL): An Introduction

I began studying biology in the 1960s and went to graduate school when a literature review meant wrestling with huge volumes of Biological Abstracts. Not only were they physically difficult to deal with, but if my topic had a long history, I tediously had to comb many volumes. After a few hours of this research, I often suffered from a syndrome I called “library malaise,” an overwhelming urge to take a nap. It was reading the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s (BHL) annual report that brought these not-so-good old days to mind. I hadn’t thought about them in a long time, because at this point they’ve faded into oblivion. No self-respecting scientist runs to the library to search for references. Now the big problem is sifting through too many citations to find the most valuable. One way to home in on what’s needed is to use the right database or portal, and for me this is often BHL. That’s because my interests are in botany and the history of botany, areas in which BHL is strong. With this series of posts I’ll explore this amazing resource and why, since its founding in 2006, it has become so valuable.

BHL’s strong points are that it’s massive, well-organized, and committed to expanding its user base. The recently published BHL 2016 annual report gives collection statistics such as: 51,460,159 pages from 196,801 volumes digitized; over 175 million taxonomic names indexed; 1,162,346 unique users, up 10% from 2015. Two new members joined this year, BHL Australia and the Natural History Museum in Paris, bringing the total to 17. There were ten original members including the Smithsonian, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the National History Museum, London—all with sizeable digital collections and digitization expertise to get the enterprise going. The Smithsonian still plays a pivotal role, with the BHL project director, Martin Kalfatovic, being a Smithsonian librarian. From the list of original members, it’s obvious that the focus is on English-language literature, though with institutions in France, Brazil, Mexico, and the Netherlands having joined, this is changing, and of course, some of the older literature is in Latin. Since all the text in BHL is available as optical character recognition (OCR) text, it is at least somewhat translatable using Google Translate (another amazing tool for someone of my vintage).

What makes BHL particularly powerful is that it’s linked to several other rich portals, making its holdings available to a broad audience. One of its new affiliates this year is Internet Archive with which it has been collaborating from BHL’s inception. Much of what’s available through BHL is also available in IA, which is a much broader storehouse. This is also becoming true for the newer Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). While a biologist might go directly to BHL to find a resource like Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum, a student doing a project on Linnaeus might not be aware of BHL, but instead use DPLA or IA. In all three cases, they will find what they need. But portal hopping can be a nuisance. Each interface is different, and it helps to become familiar with one. I’ve used BHL enough that I’m comfortable with its search functions and other tools. It provides an easy way to create a PDF of an entire document or of selected pages from it. Downloading PDFs or JPGs of images is also easy, admittedly PDFs are easier, at least for the moment. BHL is promising updates on image processing and since it has improved its interface substantially over the years, this will in all likelihood happen.

Besides working to broaden its user base, BHL has not forgotten those for whom it was originally designed: the biodiversity research community. The pages in BHL are tagged with the taxon names they contain, which means that the entire library is searchable if a user is looking for a particular genus or species. The word “miraculous” comes to mind when I consider this, and I’ve had fun testing it out with my favorite species, Darlingtonia californica. It’s good to keep in mind that because everything in BHL is open source, much of its collection dates to before 1923 and thus is out of copyright. However, since taxonomy is very much a historical science, particularly in botany, it is important to be able to trace new names back to old ones, and BHL is crucial in doing this. Also, over the past several years it has been increasing its in-copyright holdings by agreements with a number of organizations such as Arnold Arboretum, the Field Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences to host digital copies of some of their in-copyright publications. BHL is also expanding in other ways as well. It partnered with the Smithsonian’s Field Book Project that had been digitizing the field notes of Smithsonian researchers. These are absolutely fascinating and contain valuable information on where and when organisms were sighted and specimens collected. BHL is now continuing this effort as the BHL Field Notes Project by not only hosting the already digitized materials, but getting 450,000 more pages online through a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

If all these connections that BHL has made are impressive, there are still more, including major efforts in using social media to get the word out about the riches it holds. This aspect of the portal will be the subject of my next post.