Who establishes a new subspecies?

I noticed quite a few plants that have somewhat different morphology between regions, yet still have the same scientific name. What authority or who founds/registers/starts a new subspecies (“ssp”)?

overzealous splitters will find them and make them distinct genus or family, most likely. It doesn’t’ take long.

(the real answer is they get described in papers, genetic analysis, etc, and get peer review, although the bar appears very low for splitting)


There’s no central authority for plant taxonomy, anyone can establish a new species or subspecies. The only firm requirement is that the diagnosis (the original description that distinguishes your new (sub)species) has to conform to the rules set out in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Those rules govern how the description is published, and what information it contains. They don’t say anything about what data you are required to use, or really anything about the science behind your decision. And there is no requirement for peer-review.

So it’s actually relatively easy to describe a new subspecies. However, if you don’t provide convincing evidence that your subspecies is ‘real’, no one is compelled to use it. If you do have good evidence, other botanists will start using it. Eventually, if enough people are using your name, it will become ‘accepted’. There’s no official committee that can declare a name accepted, all that means is that most botanists (and particularly the ones that write floras, or maintain important databases) have agreed that your subspecies is a useful thing.


isn’t there a ‘botanical congress’ that has to approve naming and such?

No, there is no formal process for approving individual names. The International Botanical Congress meets every six years to revise the botanical code itself, but they don’t make decisions about new names. They do consider applications to ‘conserve’ names that turn out not to have priority, but that’s a different matter.


I wish botanists would review greater celandines, for example. In my travels, and on iNat, I have seen a difference between north and south Europe, mountainous vs. plains terrains, namely in leaf and flower structures.

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interesting. I always hoped they’d do a better job of vetoing ridiculous garbage names like Schoenoplectus tabarnamontehaeghawehgwe and they never seemed to, I guess that’s why.

That name was created in 1888, and the species epithet from 1805, so that’s another issue entirely. That name change reflects changing views of evolutionary relationships, and also some issues with priority (i.e., which name got published first).

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well yeah that IS a whole other issue, the idea that we should use a bad name just because some old dead guy created it in its full 609 character glory. But this is getting dangerously close to a rant so i will leave it at that :)

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Yes, it is likely that observations on iNaturalist will reveal and be the genesis for more new subspecies (or other taxa) over time! One potential example I only learned about recently, from observations on iNaturalist, are the different (and geographically correlated) color morphs of Phacelia fremontii in western California versus the deserts in eastern California and beyond.


Edit: big article, all interesting, but I’m thinking specifically the second paragraph in the introductory section, above the table of contents, may be relevant. (But seriously, the whole thing is interesting.)

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I’m not sure how many people who are not taxonomists understand taxonomy (not just general public, but also other scientists like ecologists, and certainly also science managers!) My view is that taxonomy is part art and part science. The fact that it isn’t purely science, according to some people’s conception of what a science should be like, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing or is necessarily any more or less valuable than any other human activity. Subspecies aside, we don’t even really have a robust definition of species (or any other Linnean category), but most taxonomy works well enough most of the time to continue to be useful. Just about any specific case can however be picked apart and debated ad nauseam if someone wants to do so, but that is not usually a constructive thing to do. I guess that what I am trying to say is that there isn’t really a meaningful answer to your question!


In a roundabout way, Plants of the World Online (Kew Science) http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/ are kind of a watchdog on plant taxa in iNaturalist since they took up PoWO for it’s plant framework. Presumably a group of experts more knowledgable than most are tasked with determining whether a paper is robust enough and widely accepted enough to be considered “the generally accepted position” on a taxa. Of course, the community (iNat) can push for deviations from that framework to be used in iNat…

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Intraspecific taxa of Chelidonium majus have already been described.
I do no know if they fit with what you have observed between northern and southern Europe

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I’m not at all convinced that any website claiming to cover a huge group like plants can actually critically review very much, given the massive global output of papers. I expect that they are just indexing what gets published more or less uncritically. Besides, most of these papers will have already been published by knowledgeable botanists with peer review from other knowledgeable botanists. So, please don’t pass on a claim that might well be false regarding what these sorts of websites actually do, not unless you are certain what they do.

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I did say “presumably”, and the point being that the iNat community can push for deviation… even if you assume they DON’T critically admit taxa, they do form a point of centralisation with regards to any dissention. Rather than a situation where I might have the argument with you, and Joe with Fred, and the Antipodes Foundation for the Preservation of Whacky Taxonomy with iNaturalist (I’m sure Scott’s had to deal with them before!), being able to put the arguments into the one court, so to speak, helps to make outcomes more robust. And we are talking about “as far as iNaturalist” is concerned, what the rest of the world does is up to them! I just know that the illusion of clarity that it brings is a lot less frustrating than the constant to-ing and fro-ing that happens.


If you want to see an example of a taxonomic revision that is now accepted https://abcjournal.org/index.php/abc/article/view/458/401

editing for clarification: in reply to the OP’s question: anyone who can convince others that they are right. The next logical question would be “how do you convince others?” The link shows one example that I can see is reflected in the iNat taxonomy. I just chose it because it was the last one I read and I had a link to it readily available. I have no association with it or the author.

One thing to bear in mind is that, from the global perspective, N.Z. is sometimes both literally and metaphorically “left off the map”! So, too much reliance of global biodiversity sources for N.Z. taxa can put us at a disadvantage (at least we are at the bottom of a very large pile!)

Edit: I see nothing in my post (below) which justifies the flagging of it as “offensive, abusive, or a violation of our community guidelines”! @tiwane can you see anything? I suppose that at a big stretch it could be my tongue-in cheek remark about “promotional opportunity”, but if so, it is so marginal that unless someone points out to me what the problem is, I can only guess! Alternatively, was it my abstract comment to the effect that taxonomists can suffer from mental illnesses, just like anyone else? Am I not allowed to refer to facts of life like mental illness? Please explain.

I’m not sure what point you are trying to make with that (or whether it was just a promotional opportunity!) My view is that every taxonomic revision should be accepted by default. Maybe in <1% of cases, the author can be written off as mentally ill or seriously problematic in general in some way, so those may need to be ignored. Now, I am fully aware of the fact that many taxonomic revisions aren’t going to be (fully) accepted, but the only way to handle that is for a reply to be published, which itself counts as effectively a new taxonomic revision to be accepted by default. Of course this could result in an endless “wheel war”, but in practice that seems to be tolerably rare. Now, here is the crucial point: from the perspective of iNat, what is important is only that alternative names for the same taxon lead to the same taxon, and that it is somehow made clear which concepts we are using in cases of disputed lumping/splitting. The choice is in practice somewhat arbitrary. The major disadvantage of having to follow a major global database is that they may be very slow to update, and may put stuff from here (N.Z.), for example, as lowest priority, which means that we may have to be be as much as a decade out of date when it comes to new taxonomic revisions (>90% of which are going to be accepted anyway, when they get around to it). For example, tomorrow is going to see the publication of a major revision of the NZ beetle genus Mecodema. The revision is 148 pages long and makes a huge difference to names for beetles which are often uploaded on iNat. I can update iNat with these changes within 24 hrs of publication, but if I had to wait for some database (even NZOR), we could be waiting for a very long time indeed! Any databases which do accept this revision will of necessity be doing so uncritically.

The squeeky wheel gets the grease… I guess we don’t make as much noise as some!