learning about biodiversity

How we lost the African acacias
The science of classifying plants (or indeed, any living organism) is called taxonomy. Taxonomists the world over follow a method invented by Linnaeus by which he organized plants into a hierarchy of increasingly specific groups from the Kingdom down to the smallest group, the species. He based his classification on external characteristics, like similarities of structure. This means that all living things have a scientific place and name that anyone in the world would recognize. Our Sweet Thorn is Acacia karroo, even though it has numerous common names – Sweet Thorn, Soetdoring, Mookana, Mooka, umuNga and so on. Scientists studying it would know it as Acacia karroo and in that way they can track any studies that have been published about it in the scientific literature anywhere in the world. The many species that share the genus Acacia, in turn are grouped into the Thorn Tree or Mimosa subfamily (Mimosoideae), which belong in the Legume family (Fabaceae), which ultimately is placed in the Kingdom of Plants (Plantae). (The genus and the species is always written in italics, the genus capitalized and the species in lower case.) Up till now, based on several external features like feathery leaves, stipular scars or spines, or the presence of pods, botanists recognized about 1350 Acacia species in Africa, tropical Asia, Australia and in the tropical Americas, including some 40 species of African acacias (the thorn trees) and almost 1000 species of Australian acacias (the wattles). The latest taxonomic studies however show that the genus needs to be broken down into five genera, but what to do about naming the new genera? What should have happened The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), which was established to maintain order in the world of taxonomy, adheres to certain rules and regulations for naming and classifying plants. When researchers show that a genus needs to be split as in the case of Acacia, the generic name is kept for the plants that are the same as the ‘type species’ (which is the actual plant on which the original species description is based). In this case there is some confusion as the type species for Acacia is Acacia scorpioides, which for some reason is no longer an accepted species, and is instead a synonym of the Scented Pod-thorn (Acacia nilotica). Nevertheless, if Acacia was to be split, and if the genera were named in accordance with the original type species, the name Acacia should have gone with A. nilotica to the 161 species in Africa, Asia, the Americas and a handful in northern Australia. Almost all of the Australian species would have needed new names under the next oldest
RIGHT: The Sweet Thorn (Acacia karroo). Painting by Helga Streicher. BELOW: A giraffe under an Umbrella Thorn (Acacia tortilis).

available generic name which was Racosperma. But what actually happened The ICBN makes allowances for special cases to be referred to relevant committees of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) for a legislated exception if the strict application of the rules of nomenclature would cause unnecessary disruption, and this is what a group of Australian botanists did. A case was put forward to change the type species of Acacia in such a way that, were the genus to be split up, the generic name Acacia would follow the largest group: the 1000odd wattles. In mid-2004 it was announced that the committee had made a decision to allow a new Australian type species, Acacia penninervis. This meant that the wattles would keep the name Acacia and the African thorn trees would have to change. To the collective dismay of African botanists, this was endorsed by the General Committee of IAPT and ratified at the International Botanical Congress in Vienna in 2005. At the next International Botanical Congress in Melbourne in 2011 there was a valiant attempt to challenge the process and outcome of the decision, but unfortunately it was not successful. So now, when the genus is finally split, the name Acacia will still apply to the 948 species of Australian wattles, seven related species in the Pacific Islands, one or two in the Madagascar region and 10 in tropical Asia. A few northern Australian species will have to change their generic name to Vachellia, and two will become Senegalia. The pantropical (tropical Africa, Asia and America) acacias on the other hand, will all become Vachellia, including Acacia karroo and Acacia tortilis, or Senegalia. The future of our acacias Can African scientists just ignore this unfair hijacking of our iconic African thorn trees and carry on calling our acacias Acacia? Sadly, it is not really an option as any scientists wanting their work published in internationally recognized journals would have to adhere to the internationally accepted scientific name. So, it seems, the iconic African name, acacia, will live on only as a common name.

Linking to the Curriculum In Life Sciences, for Grade 10, this article links in with the strand ‘Diversity, change & continuity: History of life and biodiversity’, the underlying concept to be taught being that ‘Life exists in a huge array of forms and modes of life at present, which scientists organize according to a man-made classification system.’ In Grade 11 it links to the strand ‘Diversity, change and continuity: Diversity of animals and plants and biogeography’ the underlying concept to be taught being that ‘Plants and animals can be grouped according to similarities in their basic structure or body plan.’

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VELD&FLORA | MARCH 2012

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