Understanding Nature: Species names and Naming Species

Did you know that the field of biology which describes species is called taxonomy? Let’s see here why this is important? And why strange Latin names are being used in Science? You will discover that there are several excellent and powerful reasons for it.

If you speak Chinese, English, French or any other language, it is thus very unlikely for the same species to have the same name in those languages. In fact, even in the same language, the same species can have multiple names or at the opposite, for different species to have the same name. Difficult then for people to understand each other’s, and this can ultimately raise a lot of confusion. In addition, it should be noted that numerous species simply do not have names in some languages, and thus it is sometimes impossible to distinguish species within entire groups. For instance, many ant or termite species do not have a specific name in English or French.

To avoid this confusion and ensure that each species has a single and unique name, the Swedish biologist Carl von Linné (aka Carl Linnaeus) had the idea in the mid-18th century to create a system known as binomial nomenclature. In this system, a species name is composed of two parts: the genus and the species epithets.

Let’s take a well-known example with our own species: 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴. The word 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 refers to the genus epithet – note that the first letter of a genus name is always capitalized - while the word 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴 (𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴 meaning “who knows” in Latin) is the species epithet. Currently, the genus 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 includes only a single species still alive – us – but through the course of evolution, many other species of 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 have existed, but are now all extinct. I am sure you may have heard before about 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘴, 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘩𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘴, 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘯𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘴. Just earlier this year a new species named 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘣𝘰𝘥𝘰𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘴 was described joining the dozen species catalogued under the genus 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 and as more fossils may be discovered in the future, new species of 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 may be described, providing novel insights about the evolution of our own species.

But beyond our own species and its past relatives, the binomial nomenclature provides a very powerful system to catalogue all the species on Earth, both alive and extinct. Those names, however also contain much more information to whom gets familiar with a particular group. First scientific names are not assigned randomly, but instead follow the classification of a species within a particular genus (and all the superior levels of taxonomy that I won’t touch on this time: family, order, class…) which rely on particular characteristics, often morphological ones, that define a particular group. Ultimately, these shared characteristics also reflect certain similarities in the evolution and ecology between species found within a particular genus… and that can be extremely useful.

Let me take an example with ants here, the groups that I study. Nearly 16,000 species of ants have been described – nearly as much as all bird and mammals’ species combined- which would make it almost impossible for anyone to know every single one of them. But this is not needed! Instead, one who may be interested to know about all ants on the planet would just have to learn the 337 extant genera in which all those 16,000 species have been classified. By simply knowing those, then one would already know a tremendous amount of information about all ants. Furthermore, some of these genera (plural for genus) are very common and widespread and may include almost a thousand species or more; while others are geographically restricted and would include less than a handful of species. So, by just knowing about 50 genera, you could already go a long way – here >75% of all ant species. Still think that’s too much, then think how many pokemons, my little poney characters, or car models a child can learn? With this system, you have a single and common language to talk with anyone about your favourite organisms. Quite amazing, right?

But let’s get back to our naming system for a bit. To be properly written, in its first mention within a text (or on a label), the species name should also be followed by the name of the person(s) who described the species, and the date of that description (here the date of publication). In a way, this is giving credit to the person(s) who described the species – what we refer to as the “authority”. Thus the full name for our species should be written 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴 Linnaeus, 1758 – meaning that the species 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴 within the genus 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 was described by Linnaeus in 1758. Later on in the text, you can not only omit the name of the authority but also abbreviate the genus name, so our species name could be written as 𝘏. 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴. Finally, note that the species name is normally italicized or underlined (something that Facebook does not allow). While there are many other rules (e.g. why some authority names are in parentheses? Or more than 2 epithets in the species name?), the ones presented above should provide you with enough information for graduating in taxonomy 101.

So the next time you will visit the Hong Kong Biodiversity Museum, or any museum presenting specimens, or a park in Hong Kong in which plant species names are indicated, if you see a label that looks like the one on the picture here, you will know exactly what are the different elements of this name, by whom and when this species was described, and as you get more skilled, how these species may even relate to each other. Give it a try!