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Whats In A Name?

Fri, Jan 19th, 2001
Posted in

Monday, January 8, 2001

While it may not have mattered much to Romeos Juliet, names are of paramount importance to those working in the biological sciences. Naturally, in the absence of names a discussion on virtually any topic would prove at best chaotic if not downright impossible. This is especially true of both animals and plants, whose true identity must somehow be accurately communicated to others with an interest in these species.

Problem is, zoology and botany are both global sciences, with those working in these fields coming from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds. This in turn means that individual zoologists and botanists may be fluent in only one of the worlds many languages. At the same time, however, zoologists and botanists worldwide have a need to know of other papers, books and reports relevant to their research regardless of the language of these publications.

Obviously, some "universally" understood method of naming animals and plants is vital if such an exchange of information is to be achieved. Biologists have accomplished this goal by utilizing a system of binomial nomenclature (literally "two names") first developed by Karl von Linn, a Swede, back in 1737. In this classification system each individual animal and plant is assigned a combination of two separate names that together serve, in theory at least, to uniquely identify the species. Thus mankind, an animal we all should be familiar with, is known to science as Homo sapiens.

The first of these two names is known as the "Genus," which basically translates as "group" or "general type." In other words, the genus or generic name may be applied to more than one species but each of these species will be closely related to one another. Returning again to the previously used example of humans, the genus Homo not only includes modern man but now extinct forms such as Java Man, Homo erectus, and Neanderthal Man, Homo neanderthalensis, as well.

As can be seen in the above examples, it is the second name in combination with the first that firmly establishes the identity of each species. While Homo encompasses all living and extinct species of humans, Homo sapiens applies to modern man alone. The second name cannot properly be called "specific," however, as that term must be reserved for the entire binomial, so it is instead known as the trivial name to scientists.

In order for this system of naming organisms to function properly, a number of basic common sense principles must be strictly adhered to. Obviously, the foremost of these rules is the need to apply genus names to only one group of animals or plants. Not surprisingly considering the number of living and extinct organisms that have been described, inadvertent duplications have been made on occasion. In such instances, historical precedence is used to resolve conflicts, with the first group named retaining its original generic designation.

Trivial names may be used more than once, provided each of the species named belong to a different genus. While the scientific names of the Corn or Red Ratsnake, Elaphe guttata, and the Spotted Turtle, Clemmys guttata, will serve to illustrate this point, numerous additional examples could be cited as well. As is the case with generic names, historic precedence is again used to resolve any conflicting applications.

Other "rules of etiquette" also apply to the proper usage of scientific names. A genus name, for example, always begins with a capital letter regardless of its placement within a sentence, while trivial names are invariably always completely in lower case. Italics, underlining, or some similar "special effect" should likewise be used to differentiate scientific names from other portions of the text.The use of Latin or Greek in the formation of scientific names dates back to von Linn, as in his era these two languages were required courses in universities around the world and could be read by virtually every doctor, clergyman, scientist, or lawyer. As he wrote in Latin as well, von Linn himself is more widely known by his Latinized name, Carolus Linnaeus.

While primarily designed for the convenience of biologists, scientific names nevertheless have value for others interested in animals and plants as well. Common names, for example, often change with geographic location. What is called a Spotted Skunk here, is known as the Little Skunk there, and as the Polecat yet somewhere else and so on. Even here within southeastern Minnesota, each of our ten different species of turtles will be called "Mud Turtle" by someone.

While many complain that scientific names are hard to pronounce and even more difficult to remember, a number have already become commonplace elements of the English language. Such familiar animals as the Boa constrictor, Iguana, Alligator, Tyrannosaurus rex, and every other dinosaur conveniently known by virtually every American by both scientific and common name. Names like Begonia, Ficus, Citrus, Philodendron, Agave, Hibiscus, Aloe and a host of others, makes this equally true of the plant kingdom as well.

Although now part of our everyday speech, these animal and plant names remain the same to everyone whether speaking French, Spanish, German, Russian, Norwegian, Polish, or even Chinese. Quite a lot in a name indeed!

By John Levell

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