Priority is a fundamental principle of modern botanical nomenclature and zoological nomenclature. Essentially, it is the principle of recognising the first valid application of a name to a plant or animal. There are two aspects to this:
- The first formal scientific name given to a plant or animal taxon shall be the name that is to be used, called the valid name in zoology and correct name in botany.
- Once a name has been used, no subsequent publication of that name for another taxon shall be valid (zoology) or validly published (botany).
There are formal provisions for making exceptions to this principle. If an archaic or obscure prior name is discovered for an established taxon, the current name can be declared a nomen conservandum (botany) or conserved name (zoology), and so conserved against the prior name. Similarly, if the current name for a taxon is found to have an archaic or obscure prior homonym, the current name can be declared a nomen protectum (zoology) or the older name suppressed (nomen rejiciendum, botany).
The principle of priority has not always been in place. When Carl Linnaeus laid the foundations of modern nomenclature, he offered no recognition of prior names. The botanists who followed him were just as willing to overturn Linnaeus's names. The first sign of recognition of priority came in 1813, when A. P. de Candolle laid out some principles of good nomenclatural practice. He favoured retaining prior names, but left wide scope for overturning poor prior names.
During the 19th century, the principle gradually came to be accepted by almost all botanists, but debate continued to rage over the conditions under which the principle might be ignored. Botanists on one side of the debate argued that priority should be universal and without exception. This would have meant a one-off major disruption as countless names in current usage were overturned in favour of archaic prior names. In 1891, Otto Kuntze, one of the most vocal proponents of this position, did just that, publishing over 30000 new combinations in his Revisio Generum Plantarum. He then followed with further such publications in 1893, 1898 and 1903. His efforts, however, were so disruptive that they appear to have benefited his opponents. By the 1900s, the need for a mechanism for the conservation of names was widely accepted, and details of such a mechanism were under discussion. The current system of "modified priority" was essentially put in place at the Cambridge Congress of 1930.
The Principle of Priority is one of the guiding principles of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, defined by Article 23. There are exceptions: another name may be given precedence by any provision of the Code or by any ruling of the Commission. It is a fundamental guiding precept that preserves the stability of biological nomenclature. It was first formulated in 1842 by a committee appointed by the British Association to consider the rules of zoological nomenclature; the committee's report was written by Hugh Edwin Strickland.
- In 1855, John Edward Gray published the name Antilocapra anteflexa for a new species of pronghorn, based on a pair of horns. However, it is now thought that his specimen belonged to an unusual individual of an existing species, Antilocapra americana, with a name published by George Ord in 1815. The older name, by Ord, takes priority; with Antilocapra anteflexa becoming a junior synonym.
- In 1856, Johann Jakob Kaup published the name Leptocephalus brevirostris for a new species of eel. However, it was realized in 1893 that the organism described by Kaup was in fact the juvenile form of the European eel (see eel life history for the full story). The European eel was named Muraena anguilla by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. So Muraena anguilla is the name to be used for the species, and Leptocephalus brevirostris must be considered as a junior synonym and not be used. Today the European eel is classified in the genus Anguilla (Garsault, 1764,) so its currently used name is Anguilla anguilla (Linnaeus, 1758).
In botany and horticulture, the principle of priority applies to names at the rank of family and below. When moves are made to another genus or from one species to another, the "final epithet" of the name is combined with the new genus name, with any adjustments necessary for Latin grammar, for example:
- When Festuca subgenus Schedonorus was moved to the genus Lolium, its name became Lolium subgenus Schedonorus.
- Xiphion danfordiae Baker was moved to Juno danfordiae (Baker) Klatt and to Iridodictyum danfordiae (Baker) Nothdurft.
- Orthocarpus castillejoides var. humboldtiensis D.D. Keck was moved to Castilleja ambigua var. humboldtiensis (D.D. Keck) J.M. Egger.
- When Caladenia alata was moved to the genus Petalochilus, the grammatical gender of the Latin words required a change in ending of the species epithet to the masculine form, Petalochilus alatus.
- D'Arcy, W.G. (1979). "(463) Proposal to Conserve the Name Agalinis Raf. (1837) against Virgularia Ruiz & Pavon (1794) (Scrophulariaceae)". Taxon. 28 (4): 419–422. doi:10.2307/1219765. JSTOR 1219765.
- McNeill, J.; Barrie, F.R.; Burdet, H.M.; Demoulin, V.; Hawksworth, D.L.; Marhold, K.; Nicolson, D.H.; Prado, J.; Silva, P.C.; Skog, J.E.; Wiersema, J.; Turland, N.J., eds. (2006). International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (Vienna Code). Adopted by the Seventeenth International Botanical Congress Vienna, Austria, July 2005. Rugell, Liechtenstein: A. R. G. Gantner. ISBN 3-906166-48-1. Appendix III, page 289
- Nicolson, Dan (1991). "A history of botanical nomenclature". Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 78: 33–56. doi:10.2307/2399589.
- McNeill, J.; Barrie, F.R.; Buck, W.R.; Demoulin, V.; Greuter, W.; Hawksworth, D.L.; Herendeen, P.S.; Knapp, S.; Marhold, K.; Prado, J.; Prud'homme Van Reine, W.F.; Smith, G.F.; Wiersema, J.H.; Turland, N.J. (2012). "Principle IV; Article 11". International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Melbourne Code) adopted by the Eighteenth International Botanical Congress Melbourne, Australia, July 2011. Regnum Vegetabile 154. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag KG. ISBN 978-3-87429-425-6.
- Brickell, C.D.; Alexander, C.; David, J.C.; Hetterscheid, W.L.A.; Leslie, A.C.; Malecot, V.; Jin, X.; Cubey, J.J. (2009), "Principle 3", International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP or Cultivated Plant Code) incorporating the Rules and Recommendations for naming plants in cultivation, Eighth Edition, Adopted by the International Union of Biological Sciences International Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants (PDF), International Association for Plant Taxonomy and International Society for Horticultural Science, ISBN 978-90-6605-662-6
- Darbyshire, S.J. (1993). "Realignment of Festuca Subgenus Schedonorus with the Genus Lolium (Poaceae)". Novon. 3 (3): 239–243. doi:10.2307/3391460. JSTOR 3391460.
- "Tropicos.org". Retrieved 1 November 2014.
- John Mark Egger (2008). "Nomenclatural changes and selected lectotypifications in Castilleja (Orobanchaceae)". Phytologia. 90: 63–82.
- "Australian Plant Names Index". Retrieved 1 November 2014.