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National University of Singapore to host secretariat of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature for next three years

The international authority that oversees naming rules for animal species held first meeting in Singapore; Members to address new challenges and changes to this process, and to chart the way how ICZN works for decades ahead

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) today announced that the National University of Singapore (NUS) has been appointed to run the secretariat of the ICZN for the next three years from 2013 to 2016, while the Commission charts its funding model and future directions. The announcement was made by ICZN President Dr Jan van Tol at the council’s first meeting held in Singapore, where one of its commissioners Professor Peter Ng of NUS, is based.

Nearly the entire ICZN is attending the meeting, which is held from 17 to 20 November 2013. The ICZN, which operates under a mandate of the International Union of Biological Sciences, is the international authority that establishes the rules for applying scientific names to all animals, living and extinct. This landmark meeting that is likely to change the way the ICZN works for decades ahead.

The critical role of ICZN

The ICZN, functioning since 1895, is presently made up of 26 senior biologists from 19 countries around the world. The ‘International Code of Zoological Nomenclature’ is a set of laws that specify how names must be formed, which name should be used if more than one name has been given to a particular kind of animal or if the same name is given to more than one kind of animal, etc. The ICZN arbitrates, makes recommendations/decisions and votes on cases where there is ambiguity, dispute and/or disagreement to ensure that zoological scientific names are stable and can be used internationally by scientists and the public.

With more than 17 million names created since 1758 and some 16,000 new species described annually, the role of the ICZN is critical.


Today, the ICZN faces unprecedented challenges and changes in the new scientific climate. Many are technical as the ICZN endeavours to refine the rules and procedures to help biologists catalogue and study the immense biodiversity on the planet – estimates are that 88% of the estimated 8 million species of living animals on Earth remain unnamed! Others are financial as the ICZN works to be more financially autonomous and operationally effective. The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, the financial arm that helps funds the ICZN is no longer functional as its resources are depleted; and the ICZN now also needs to relook at how it conducts its business, manage its costs and be a more effective organisation. NUS is now hosting the Acting Secretariat for ICZN to help operations continue in this difficult period.

Technical challenges include changes in the way scientists describe animals, the myriad of new tools available, the impact of internet, the proliferation of information technology and e-publishing, etc. For example, until recently, all new species (and genera and families – the ranks governed by the Code) had to be described in publications printed on paper. The Commission recently passed an amendment to the Code that allows publication of new names electronically – recognising that many journals now publishing only in digital form. That amendment, like all amendments to the Code (and the Code itself), was available for comment by all scientists for a year before it was acted on and adopted by the Commission.

The latest ICZN meeting will evaluate and discuss ICZN’s online registration system of animal names termed ‘ZooBank’, the rules concerning online-only publications, as well as work on preparing the fifth edition of the Code, which is planned to take effect in 2018.

Dr Jan van Tol, President of ICZN, “All these challenges are complex and cannot be resolved easily. Consensus is critical to ensure the mission of the ICZN is achieved. The various issues can only be effectively decided when the commissioners address them through intensive discussions. We are pleased that NUS recognises the importance of this exercise and has kindly agreed to host the ICZN meeting. We expect very lively discussions over the next few days.”

Professor Barry Halliwell, NUS Deputy President (Research and Technology), said, “Singapore and the surrounding Southeast Asian region are enormously rich in animal life, with new species being discovered weekly. NUS has for many years conducted excellent research on biology and biodiversity, and how it will be affected by environmental changes; and we therefore recognise the importance of the zoological commission and its activities. We are proud to host the secretariat of the ICZN.”

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