by Whit Gibbons

August 17, 2014

Q: 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?

A: This week I will address the first question about the rules for naming species. Next week’s column will deal with the question of how scientists determine when a species is “new.”

A university 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.

The system 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.

Every species 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 States.

Closely 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.

A name 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.

Some scientific 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.

The order 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.

Next week: What qualifies a species as new to science?

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)


SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home