DO PLANTS AND ANIMALS GET THEIR NAMES?
by Whit Gibbons
January 14, 2007
Q. I have
two questions. How do scientists know when they have discovered a "new"
species, and how do they decide what to name it?
A. This column
answers the question about scientific names. How scientists recognize
that a species is new to science will be addressed in next week's column.
ever seen a Daucus carota? This is not a new Italian car, and you
have not only seen one but also probably eaten one. Daucus carota
is the scientific name for a carrot. Why don't we just call it a carrot?
of scientific names is to provide a partial taxonomic map to the evolutionary
relationships among species of plants and animals. The chosen names confirm
our understanding of the origins and levels of kinship among different
species. They also help maintain uniformity in what species are called.
is not perfect, but scientific names provide consistency and a level of
accuracy in biology that are often lacking when only the common names
are used for organisms. For example, for an ecologist writing about the
primitive fish variously called bowfin, cypress bass, or dog fish, the
name Amia calva unmistakably identifies the species. By the "rules
of scientific nomenclature" only one species in the world can be
given that name. Scientists known as taxonomists spend a lot of time making
sure the rules are not broken.
of animal or plant has two scientific names. The first name, the genus,
is always capitalized; the second, which identifies the species within
the genus, is not, even when it is derived from a proper name. Both these
names are italicized. A genus may comprise several closely related species.
Thus many large hawks are placed in the genus Buteo. The genus
Anopheles includes the only species of mosquitoes that transmit
malaria. Just as closely related species are placed in the same genus,
closely related genera (the plural of "genus") are grouped into
a family. Jaguars, tigers, and house cats all belong to the family Felidae.
Skunks, otters, and badgers are in the family Mustelidae.
are usually of Latin or Greek origin or at least are made to look like
they are. Some names are chosen to represent a definitive feature of the
organism. For example, the Sonoran mountain kingsnake, a beautiful red-,
white-, and black-ringed creature, is called Lampropeltis pyromelana.
The genus name means "beautiful shield" in Greek, and the species
epithet means "black fire." Some species names were not well
chosen, as observed in the black racer (Coluber constrictor), which
was named in the 1700s in Europe from a museum specimen collected in North
America. Racers are not constrictors, but the name persists.
we are associated with a species can determine what we call it on an everyday
basis. Ichthyologists who study the freshwater fishes called darters refer
to most by their scientific names. However, the use of a common name may
take precedent when a species achieves some level of popularity or notoriety
with the general public, as did the snail darter, Percina tanasi.
But pet owners do not say their Canis familiaris barks too much
or their Felis domesticus meows to be fed. Or imagine a cowboy
running into the saloon and yelling at the men to drink down their whiskeys
and saddle up because the herd of Bos taurus is stampeding. Some
species, however, are commonly known by their scientific name, such as
Alligator, Iris, and Gorilla.
names are used to designate where a species was first discovered or to
honor someone. The genus name for milkweeds is Asclepias, after
the Greek demigod of medicine. The species name of the threatened species
known as the Alabama red-bellied turtle is Pseudemys alabamensis.
achieved by adhering to the rules of scientific nomenclature is important
in biology. The names are intended to tell us something based on our knowledge
of ecology and evolution. And acquiring knowledge is certainly an appropriate
endeavor for Homo sapiens, whose species name, derived from Latin,
means "knowing, wise." Some members of this species, however,
make us wonder if this is one of those names that should be in the "not
well chosen" category.
you have an environmental question or comment, email