There are millions and millions (~8.6 million) species of plants and animals. They have two kinds of names. The local names and the scientific names. Their local names might cause certain difficulties. For example, starfish is called so because it looks like a star. But is it a fish? A fish by definition is a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins living wholly in water.
Similarly, an ornithologist from the 'land down under' is talking to his fellow scientists from Europe, and he wants to talk about magpies. Easy right? But which magpie is he talking about? The Australian or Eurasian?
And this is how confusion is generated. Imagine the confusion when millions and millions of people with different languages talk about the same species (with different common names) and vice versa. Also, the local name provides no precise information as to which group the organism belongs to. This is where scientific names are very helpful.
The use of scientific names, Greek or Latin, for plants and animals helps reduce this confusion. And also, the organisms are divided into many categories, which help them be classified.
Why was there a need for Binomial Nomenclature?
There are approximately 1 trillion species on the Earth. And more than 600,000 species are present in Australia alone, which is one of the most biologically rich countries on Earth. However, only 30 percent of Australia’s living species have been discovered and named so far, leaving out the 400,000 Australian species that are naive to us. Consider a small example of native Australian mosquitoes. There are an estimated 200 unnamed species of these mosquitoes that are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal on Earth.
This answers the simplest question: why does it matter to name animals this way? It is vital for keeping the record of native species and the conservation of biodiversity. Latin names are unique to a specific organism, and this unique name also tells us about the genus and species.
These unique names present us a sort of code by which scientists from different nations can easily identify the organism. This system is called Binomial nomenclature, as introduced by Swedish physician and botanist, Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century. This system used the Latin names of species and genus names of an organism to create a unique name for it ('bi' means two, and 'nomial' means name).
The binomial system was a much-needed framework to sustainably manage life on Earth, especially today when we’re facing an extinction crisis, thanks to habitat fragmentation and degradation, land-use changes, pollution, and climate change! These names are universal codes and updated at regular intervals.
Why did Carl Linnaeus choose the Latin language?
Before the binomial system, species had long, descriptive Latin names that could be changed at will. Furthermore, the huge number of plants and animals that were being brought back to Europe from around the world created the urgency for a workable naming system. Linnaeus sought to clear the mess and introduced a simplified naming system that designated Latin names to indicate the genus and one for the species.
Linnaeus and associates used Latin because it is an obsolete historical language that wasn’t used as an official language by any nationality. He figured no one would ever agree on using a language other than theirs as standard.
Latin is not evolving like modern languages do over time that develop new words or change the meaning of the existing words. For example, Mus musculus is a universal code for the common house mouse, so there’s no confusion with its computer counterpart. This system ensures that one species has only one scientific name, no matter where in the world it can be found. This removes all ambiguity about what we’re talking about in whatever literature or journal, or magazine. So, if you want to discuss bluegill sunfish, for example, with your research associate from Russia or China, you both know the scientific name for the species? Lepomis macrochrius.
3 approaches for how scientist come up with Latin names
Scientific names can be descriptive of;
Many species are also named to honor famous celebrities. One of the greatest naturalists, Sir David Attenborough, has dozens of species named after him to honor his contribution to science. Microleo attenboroughi, Attenborougharion rubicundus, Materpiscis attenboroughi, for example, are a few of them.
Sometimes, taxonomists break free from the norm and give quirking names to the organism that are fun to say. Examples include Hebejeebie, assigned to a new genus that was separated from Hebe, and Naja naja is the king cobra.
Often, the scientific names do not describe the organism adequately. This is because the rules for changing names are very complicated once it has been globally accepted. For instance, a Platypus apicalis isn’t the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) from Australia but rather a beetle!
Interested in naming your fictional creature? Read this pdf to experiment with different root words to name some superficial creature (following all rules) you discovered in your imagination.
Taxonomy is the branch that deals with the naming and classification of organisms. There is a term used by the taxonomists called taxonomic hierarchy. This means that different organisms are arranged in successive levels in a descending or in ascending order. The kingdom is the highest rank.
There used to be 2 kingdoms, Animalia and Plantae, but now we have 7, and those are Bacteria, Archaea, Protozoa, Chromista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia.
The complete classification is as follows:
We will use the cat as an example to better explain this classification...
Scientific names are also assigned to highlight the animal’s relationships with other animals. The genus is the first level where the most closely related species are placed together. Some genera have only one species, but most genera comprise many species, all of which share the same generic epithet. The species become less related to each other as we move up the ladder. Two species in the same genus are more closely related than two species in the same phylum.
Scientific names are always created according to the rules of Latin grammar, and the common ones are all derived from the Latin language. The word felis, for example, means “cat.” Taxonomic families are named after the genus; thus, the names ending in “idae” mostly represent families (groups of closely related genera). In the above example, Felidae contains all the “cats” and their close relatives. And the name ending in “inae” represents a subfamily such as Felinae is the subfamily of Felidae that contains the genus Felis.
However, this does not apply to the two-word species names assigned according to a different set of rules. Ophioliassica ingridae, for example, is a species of starfish. Since its name has two parts, the ‘idae’ ending does not represent the taxonomic family.
This all seems so complicated and overly nitpicky, but it is the only way scientists could name and document over a million different species, living or extinct, and establish a clear relationship among them. These classifications are continually updated, and species are reclassified as more new species are being discovered to make sure they are grouped with their closest relatives.
Rules for naming organisms:
Now let’s discuss some generally accepted rules which must be observed when writing the scientific names of the organisms.
Taxonomy is a branch that is constantly changing. The discovery of new species and the change in the classification of the previously known are always taking place. For example, all cats were once defined under the genus of felis. But now, a new category has been created for bobcats that are lynx. Hence changing the name of the organism. This issue can be solved by the regular updates of the database, so all the literature released must have new and corrected names. This site provides links to updated manuscripts on the binomial system. And, if you wish to know more about the roots and running of the binomial system, visit this site.
As we have seen above, giving scientific names to species is a whole system that has helped humans catalog some 8.7 million and 400,000 plants. It has saved time and helped us remember information in a systematic way.
So far, you probably can name a new species you discovered after your favorite food, pet, or fictional character as J.K. Rowling-inspired Ampulex dementoror or Star Wars-inspired Han solo. Or you could try a solid pun, like Gelae, named after the Latin gelatus, which means “congealed.” This simple wordplay made sense since the tiny, brown, and yellow fungus beetles live and feed on slime molds. The researchers named five of its species as Jelly bean, Jelly Belly, Jelly donut, Jelly roll, and Jellyfish. There’s no end to giving amusing names to species. So if you ever get the opportunity to name a species of your own, don’t be afraid to get creative!
Nida Riaz is a freelance blogger based in Pakistan. She started writing about her passion for the environment when the world came to a stop in early 2020.