ScienceWise - Winter 2012

What’s in a name?

Article Illustration
Too many magpies: The magpie from Europe, Pica pica (left), and the magpie from Australia, Gymnorhina tibicen (right), share a common name. Using their scientific names removes any confusion

The science of taxonomy

Species are all around us, and taxonomists are the people who allocate names to them. Such names are incredibly important, as they allow people from all over the world to talk about the same species, regardless of language differences. Taxonomy is a strange science because old and new are mixed together: the principles for naming new, never before seen species have their roots in the 18th century. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus revolutionized taxonomy by developing the system of binomial nomenclature in the late 1700s. Previously, species were given very long names that were often not very helpful. Linnaeus streamlined the naming process. This helped avoid confusion because even if common names are shared amongst species, each one has a unique scientific name. We still use the Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species hierarchy today.

Discovering new species is exciting. While there aren’t many geographical places left on Earth to discover, there are still thousands of plant and animal species being discovered every year. To date, we’ve only managed to name about 1.9 million of the 5 to 10 million animals, plants, and microorganisms estimated to live on Earth. In Australia, we have about 65,000 species of vertebrates (mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and birds) yet have only described a little over 8,000 of them. We have lots of invertebrates: probably around 1.4 million species, yet we’ve only managed to identify around 99,000 species. This pattern holds for plants, fungi and others (like bacteria) too - only small proportions have been identified. So it stands to reason that if you’re going to take a walk or a swim in any part of Australia, you’re likely to encounter a new species without even knowing it. And it’s probably going to be an invertebrate. But what happens when someone finds something they think is a new species?

To name a species, taxonomists must carefully study the specimens and decide where they fit amongst the standard hierarchy of organisms. They then compare the specimens with all other known related species to determine if they are new, or something that has already been described. If they are thought to be new, the specimens are measured, with notes taken on the particular morphology and shape of the animal and its body parts. The measurements of the animal is then carefully compared with the other species that it is thought be related to (usually in the same genus). It’s not necessarily taxonomists who are the only ones able to identify species, as many scientists can examine specimens and determine identifications, but it is the taxonomists who write up how and why the specimen is new and give it a name.

Taxonomists adhere to a very strict code of how things are named (for animals it’s called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature). The funny Latin-sounding names often given to the roadrunner and the coyote at the start of the Looney Tunes cartoons are examples of binomials, but are not actually their real names (their names are Geococcyx californianus and Canis latrans respectively, which are rather less amusing). Binomial names are usually in Latin or Greek and the usage of words and modification of names for use as binomials also has a complex set of rules. Often names are decided based on a feature. One of my favourite names is Hydromys chrysogaster (the Australian water rat), which in Latin means ‘water-mouse gold-belly’. Species can also be named after the place where they were found, or for a person. While it’s very uncool to name a species after oneself (not even Linnaeus did that), you can most definitely name a species after someone else. Colleagues, family members, and famous people – anything goes! The final step in the process is for the taxonomist to write up their formal description of the new species, including measurements, images (photos or line drawings), and justification, in a scholarly journal. This is not only a requirement of the code, but also provides a resource for anyone else who is interested in the particular species described (e.g., for future research).

Taxonomists bring order to the world by categorizing and naming species. As there are so many undescribed species still to discover in the world, perhaps the next time you go bush walking or exploring, you might just stumble across something no one else has ever seen before!

By Haylee Weaver

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