What’s in a name?

Written By: Katharine Kocik

In terms of classifying organisms, names usually reveal a great deal about a species. The familiar binomial nomenclature system involves two levels of taxa: the genus name and the species name. The first word in the name, the genus, reflects the recent phylogeny of a species, and the second name separates species within the same genus. This system was first used consistently by Carl Linnaeus in the mid-18th century and remains the universal method of identifying species today. Despite its success so far, one must wonder at the implications as more and more species are discovered.

Current estimates say that 1.5 million out of 8.7 billion species have been discovered – leaving about 87% of the world’s biodiversity unnamed. The staggering volume of names that must be unique and universal, not including the majority that remain nameless, raises the concern of maintaining the system’s integrity. The International Codes for Zoological Nomenclature, Nomenclature for Bacteria, and Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants, address this through extensive sets of rules and exceptions.

The three Codes are very similar, so in this instance, the Code for Zoological Nomenclature (animals) will represent the rules for naming all organisms. These regulations generally allow for the discoverer’s freedom in choosing a name, given that it is presented in a particular format and not already used – although a plant species and an animal species may share the same name.

The most significant criterion for a species name, aside from binomial nomenclature, is its Latin form. Most names are derived from Greek or Latin to describe the species, such as the species name of the blue jay, cristatus, which means “crested”.

If the name is not of Latin origin, a suffix may be added. For example, a twirler moth species in Southern California and Northern Mexico was discovered in 2017 with unique yellow-white scales on its head. Scientist Vazrick Nazari named it Neopalpa donaldtrumpi (adding -i to the end), for its resemblance to Donald Trump’s hair and to call attention to the destruction of fragile habitats in the US.

Other memorable species names include La cucuracha, a pyralid moth, and Dissup irae, a fossil fly that was reported as difficult to see. As these names reflect, the Code “recommends” that if a species has an unconventional name or is named after a person, there should still be an association between the organism and name. Upon discovery of a new dinosaur species in China, for instance, Director Stephen Spielberg recommended the species name nedegoapeferima, made up by combining last names of actors that starred in Jurassic Park. David Attenborough, a famous nature documentary filmmaker, has several species named after him, including multiple plant species and a dinosaur. Often scientists simply name new species after people they admire: four damselfly species in the Heteragrion genus take their names from the four members of the band Queen – Heteragrion brianmayi, Heteragrion freddiemercuryi, Heteragrion johndeaconi, and Hetaragrion rogertaylori.

For now, the creativity of biologists will suffice to keep biological species names unique — let alone more appropriate for the lack of Latin in the 21st century, as scientists continue to work on that 87% of species remaining.


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