The application of names

I’d like us to all think for a little bit about the way that we apply names to organisms around us.

I started thinking about this after my friend Danny Newman hijacked the comments thread on this Mushroom Observer post of a Xylaria from Portugal. This post, but the amicable and cryptically-named zaca, was of a cute little Xylaria growing on a mossy log in a park in Lisbon. They’d tagged the find as “Xylaria polymorpha“, one of the two names for species of Xylaria often included in field guides; the other, of course, is “Xylaria hypoxylon“. Danny used the application of this widely misapplied name in such circumstances to start a more general conversation about how we apply names to fungi. I’d encourage you all to go read that comment thread, if you haven’t already.

Xylaria cf. cinerea, photographed by zaca.

One thing that comes out of that conversation for me is some thought about the culture around identification. People like to categorize things — it has been theorized to be a universal human trait. It is no different for mycologists, particularly amateur mycologists. We want a name for the things we see; to many people, to name something is to know it, to understand it. We want to figure out what a mushroom is, to put it in the box of a species, because that satisfies some obscure desire to classify and categorize the world around us. This potentially is the same process of thought that leads to unconscious racism and sexism in some people.

I realized that I have contributed to this culture in the past by providing names (and with some perceived authority, too!) in situations where really I should be saying “it isn’t possible to confidently identify this fungus without more information” or the like. I have since started to make an effort to alter the culture around identification by saying firmly when there is not enough information to apply a name, but the biggest thing we can do is to help people feel comfortable with putting things in bigger boxes — zaca’s Xylaria is still in the bigger box of genus, with no epithet applied, because without a specimen there is no way to confidently pin an identification to that observation. (Though there is a probable identification at the species level — Xylaria cf. cinerea — so I suppose we can say it’s in a hard genus box, and a soft species box. Or maybe a “c(o)f.(t)” species box?)

Part of changing this culture around identification will be in the way we approach writing guidebooks. Part of why zaca initially named their specimen “Xylaria polymorpha” was the guide they used to identify it. David Arora’s tome, Mushrooms Demystified, only keys two species of Xylaria (X. hypoxylon and X. polymorpha), noting two more in the comments on these species (X. cornu-damae and X. longipes), but only to say “there are many Xylarias [sic] that more or less resemble this species … but they are best differentiated microscopically.” He gives no information on how to differentiate them microscopically, though. Even Mike Beug’s new Ascomycete Fungi of North America only lists a few species of Xylaria.

We have these keys that lead to distinct species, rather than genera, or groups of species, or whatever broader division, because people like to be able to pin a name on what they find. That’s the cultural issue. But there’s a feedback loop between that culture and the way guidebooks are written — the guidebooks reflect the culture, but they also perpetuate it. When we write guidebooks or online keys or the like, we should be making sure that they are clear about their limits, and they should work to normalize the use of broader boxes. Given the field guides and keys available, of course people put these names on things — what else can they do!?

What’s needed is a cultural shift to being okay with genus, or even higher order, identifications, and an understanding that (particularly for ascomycetes) the guidebooks are far from all inclusive. And I think those are lessons that people are ready and willing to learn, if we are willing to teach respectfully. Take this particular observation as an example: zaca was perfectly willing to accept a genus-level determination after understanding what was going on (and willing to dig into the diversity question deeper), but until someone explained, how were they suppose to know what was wrong with the name X. polymorpha? It’s what the guidebook said, after all!

The other thing that we need, of course, is more detailed, publicly accessible guides to particular groups of fungi, my grinding-stone being, of course, a relatively comprehensive guide to the Xylaria of the world: there are more than 800 described species in the genus, and no place with more than a few dozen in any single key. And when it’s time for me to write a lay-person’s guide (and that time is coming), I plan to make the limits of that key very clear. Who’s with me?

2 thoughts on “The application of names

  1. Psathyrellum Quixote says:

    Roo– a good and important discussion here. It would be nice to have a general explanation of “cf.” and “aff” so that these terms can be used informatively in threads. I didn’t parse out your “c.(o)f.(t)” remark– inside joke? I’m mediocre at guessing acronyms. These identification and discussion forums can be useful, but often succumb to quick guesses and worse, comments that the fungus looks like poop, genetalia, aliens, or is “so cool, weird, good, delicious or disgusting” (all personal opinions). All of these, and the blaring lack of relevant observable info, lead me to avoid most threads as a time suck. It would be more appealing if folks thought a little, read previous comments, and click like if you agree with a previous proposed ID. I tend to just avoid participating because it’s a mine field of reactions, and quick comments or typos can be misleading or ambiguous. I’d appreciate a focused forum that stuck to solid guidelines– observation notes, date, location, habitat, taxon proposed and WHY!!! Ideally, folks would use this as an exercise to explore the nuances of the ongoing discussions that remain in many taxa, and learn together.

    • Oh, yeah, a good explanation of the use of “cf.” and “aff.” in the middle of Latin names (as well as things like “s.s.” and “s.l.” after) would be a really good idea. Maybe I’ll make a separate post about that. In the meantime, “cf.” is an abbreviation for “confer“, which is the Latin for “compare this to…” (or, depending on who you talk to “circa formis” meaning “approximately the form of”) — in this case, it means that it’s similar to the named species, but might not be, so we should compare it with that species. It’s a way for the scientist to say that we’re not certain of that identity, it’s a box with fuzzy boundaries, or a SOFT box. the “c(o)f.(t)” remark was just a joke on the use of cf. as a way to put things in soft boxes.

      I’ve, in general, found to be a really excellent forum, full of people that care more about learning about fungi than making jokes about hallucinations or fungi looking like poop. I would recommend it!

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