DO PLANTS AND ANIMALS GET THEIR SCIENTIFIC NAMES?
Some of the scientific names we are learning about in biology seem unnecessarily
complex. How do scientists decide what to name a new species? Also,
how do scientists know when they have discovered a new species
that needs a name?
This week I will address the first question about the rules for naming
species. Next weeks column will deal with the question of how
scientists determine when a species is new.
colleague of mine would jokingly tell his first-year biology students
that scientific names were invented in a 19th-century tavern by a frisky
group of professors who thought students needed more to learn. Some
students probably thought the teacher was serious because of the potpourri
of scientific names that are derived from Latin or Greek or at
least look like they are. Nonetheless, the names have a uniformity that
provides a partial taxonomic map to the evolutionary relationships among
species of plants and animals. The chosen names reflect our understanding
of the origins and levels of kinship among different species.
is not perfect, but scientific names provide consistency and a degree
of precision about species that may be lacking when only the common
names are used. For example, when an ecologist refers to a southern
live oak, the name Quercus virginiana unmistakably identifies
the species. By agreed-upon 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. Closely related species are placed in the same genus.
Thus, all species of oaks are placed in the genus Quercus. Species
within a genus can be geographically separated. They may even be found
on different continents. Thus, the famous lilies painted by Monet in
France are in the same genus, Nymphaea, as the common white-flowered
water lily, Nymphaea odorata, found in lakes throughout the United
related genera (the plural of genus) are grouped in a family.
Hence, African leopards (genus Panthera), bobcats (genus Lynx),
and house cats (genus Felis) all belong to the same family, Felidae.
At the next level of taxonomic organization, closely related families
are grouped into orders. Thus, cats in the family Felidae are included
with dogs, wolves, and foxes (family Canidae) in the order Carnivora.
may be chosen to represent some definitive feature of the organism.
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. Not all species names are quite as 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 scientific name has persisted.
names are used to designate the geographic region of a species. For
example, the scientific name of the rare and endangered Alabama waterdog,
a salamander found in drainages of the Black Warrior River, is Necturus
alabamensis. Other names are given to honor someone, such as the
fish named Etheostoma boschungi, named after Herbert Boschung,
who was an ichthyology professor at the University of Alabama.
and organization 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 the species, however, may make us wonder if this is one of
those names that should be put in the not well chosen category.
What qualifies a species as new to science?
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