On May 11th, 2016 we learned about

Binomial nomenclature: how biologists keep track of each and every organism

In her science lesson, my first grader recently learned that ladybug was not the “real” name for insects in the order Coccinellidae, and for that matter, nothing was really even a “bug” either. The “real” name eluded her by the end of the day, and I suspect that the real lesson was that there are common names for plants, animals, fungi, etc., and there are more specific scientific names, which adhere to standards in a way the common usage of “bug” doesn’t. Binomial nomenclature is more than just a sorting mechanism though, since ladybugs also get called ladybird beetles and lady beetles in English, but that doesn’t help a Russian wanting to identify a божья коровка, much less come close to specifying all 6,000 species of these spotted beetles. Beyond specificity, this system of naming also helps describe evolutionary relationships between organisms, helping us piece together where species come from.

Sorting generals and specifics

The concepts behind this naming system are actually pretty simple. When speaking about a particular creature, the first word is their general name (or genus) and the second is their specific name (species.) A now common ladybug across in the United States is the harlequin ladybug, or Harmonia axyridis, imported from eastern Asia to eat aphids. The genus, Harmonia, lets us know that this species is closely related to at least 14 other species of similar ladybugs, and then the species, axyridis, is telling us which particular one we’re discussing. On the other hand, these names may be hard to keep track of compared to something cute like “ladybug,” because, well, when did you last run into an axyridis?

While casual speech has picked up some scientific names, like Tyrannosaurus rex, most don’t feel very convenient and informative if you’re not comfortable with Latin. When Carl Linnaeus first outlined this naming system in his Systema Naturae in 1735, scientists worked in Latin to describe their work. With Latin as a reference point, you can then figure out that T. rex means “tyrant king.” Ideally, these names are descriptive in some way, but it’s often more critical that the names are unique among other animals (although animals can share names with plants, fungi or bacteria, which use a parallel system.) This might seem annoyingly opaque for most people, but this separation also helps insulate species’ names from some of the twists and turns in words’ meanings you’re likely to encounter in casual speech.

Naming something new

With all these parameters in mind, how does a newly discovered species get named then? The first step is to pick a holotype. A holotype is the canonical example of that species- the one that all other specimens will be compared to to see if they’re a match. Holotypes can be single fossils if the animal is extinct, photographs, DNA sample, or even a complete taxidermied animal. If possible, paratypes are also recorded, which are animals from the same species that demonstrate variations in features, such as a male specimen if the holotype for a sexually dimorphic species is female. Such depth is not always available to researchers, but the goal is always to create reference points that can be used for further studies and comparisons. It’s also important to make sure the new holotype is actually new, and not simply a paratype of something that’s already been discovered and named.

Once a organism has been documented and described for what makes it distinct from previously known species, a genus may be picked, or possibly created if the discovery is distantly related from anything we’ve ever seen. A species is also picked, and all the information is shared with registration or academic catalogs, without the need for a peer-reviewed study. Ideally, the new species is carefully described, and while names to get amended from time to time, scientists try to avoid challenging established names, even if they’re a little silly.

The names themselves can sometimes seem like an afterthought compared to all the descriptions and categorization. While many creatures are named in a way that describes a key feature, or location where they were found, others are named in tribute to whatever may have interested their discoverer. This flexibility has given us an insect called Marichisme (“Mary kiss me,”) a trilobite named Sid viciousi (“Sid Vicious”) and at least 10 animals with names plucked from Star Wars. It all works as long as they’re being specific.

Source: How a new species is named by Dr. Dave Hone, The Guardian

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