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What's in a Name? All About Scientific Names and Their Functions

written by: P. Andrew Powe • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 1/5/2012

Understanding scientific names is often one of the difficult portions of biology for students. Once you understand the reasoning behind the scientific naming system, it becomes easier for you to grasp the functions of these unique names.

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    Those Baffling Animal and Plant Names

    When scientists or specialists in any of the life sciences get together they will start throwing out those two-word names that sound as if they are from an old children's tongue twister song or Dr. Suess book. The average person on the street simply refers to the animal by a common name.

    However, the problem with this is that two scientists from opposite ends of the Earth cannot use these common names. The problem is a creature can have the same name in different parts of the world and be completely different. This also provides a uniqueness with the two-word system or binomial nomenclature as it is known in professional circles. There are also four basic functions of scientific names.

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    What Is Binomial Nomenclature?

    The easiest way to describe scientific naming of any species is that it is unique. No other species can have the same name. This relates to any species that has ever lived or is still living on the planet Earth. Even fossils are given a scientific name to help define exactly what that particular species is. This enables a scientist to speak with another scientist and both will know exactly what organism they are talking about. This aids scientists in clarifying particular attributes of each species when they are examining them.

    The proper term is binomial nomenclature. The scientific name includes the genus and species of each living thing. This is the first and last name in the series. For simplicity, you only need to rememeber that the first name is the genus epithet and refers to animals that are common to each other, but are of a seperate species. The second epithet is the species name itself.

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    The Four Functions

    There are many different reasons to use binomial nomenclature or scientific names, but most scientists and researchers feel that there are four primary reasons. All of these are designed to simplify and ease categorizing living organisms. As stated earlier this is done with all organisms, no matter their state.

    1. Stability

    The first is that the system is stable. The system can be added to but since the original form has existed for so long it is the universal language used for organism classification throughout the world. This allows zoologists and scientists to place a newly discovered organism into a related species or to create a new species when the need is presented.

    2. Clarity

    The second function is clarity. This is another reason that the scientific name is used. As it was stated in the article, organisms can have a same common name even if they are separate species. This helps clarify the naming system for scientific work. This allows researchers to know exactly which organism they are discussing and eliminates misconceptions or errors on evaluating the organism.

    3. Uniqueness

    The third function is uniqueness of the name to that particular organism. This allows a scientist to give an organism a name that is specific to only that particular species. There can be no other organism with that name in the universe. Again this makes the practice of research and discovery easier for scientists. You only need to know these two names to identify the organism. There is no common name to cause confusion during identification.

    4. Simplicity

    The fourth function is simplicity. With only having to remember two very specific words about an organism, it allows for easier memorization. The original classification system used multiple names which caused confusion. By using only two words to identify the organism it will ease the amount of work required to discover what it is in the first place.

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    History and Origin

    Statue of Linnaeus The system was originally developed by the Swedish scientist Carl von Linne. He is known more by his Latinized name of Linnaeus. He lived from 1707 to 1778. His work Systema Naturae, which was published in 1758 began the use of the binomial nomenclature.

    It was the trivial name or the second part of the naming system that created the unique name for each species. He originally intended on only using a single latinized name for each species but found this became confusing early on in his studies.

    With this new system, scientists found these names to be more descriptive than local names and that they also grasped a more unique nomenclature.

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    The Genus or First Name

    For this example we will use a very common freshwater aquarium fish. You may be familiar with one of the many species of mollies which are available throughout the United States at pet stores. All of these have the same first scientific name. They are known as Poecilia. This is the genus name of this particular type of fish.

    They are generally two to four inches long, come in a range of colors, and are native to Central America. They all bear live young. These are their common traits. This is just some of the basic commonalities between the different types of mollies that makes up their genus.

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    The Species or Second Name

    The species name is the name after the genus in the identification system. This is what makes that specific living creature different from its related genus/family members. Returning to our examination of mollies, we can begin to understand the very minute geographic or physical differences between the fish.

    For instance, the name Poecilia velifera is native to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and has a large dorsal fin and greyish green color. By contrast another species of molly, the Poecilia butleri, come from Central America, have orange markings across their bodies and can reach a length of four inches. As similar as these two species are, they are different simply because of regional differences and color differences. However, they are both sold at pet shops as sailfin mollies.

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    The Value of this System

    The key to using the scientific name is to provide the student or scientist with greater clarity and a uniqueness to each individual species. Scientist and students are capable of describing very specific, if not minute, differences between living things of the same species. As you saw with the reference to mollies, it only takes a slight geographic or physical difference to speciate an organism. This is what makes this naming agenda so important.

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    Types of Names

    When the process was originally created it was intended to stay in the Latin language. However, through time, this has changed. Generally the first name or genus is in Latin. However it can also be Greek or another language but must be able to be treated in Latin singular. It must also be unique across that kingdom or grouping of organisms. Many extinct animals do have relatives that are descendants and also bear the same name. An easy way to understand that is to think of Homo sapiens as the modern descendant of Homo erectus.

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    Lineage of Types of Names of an Organism

    Biological Classification System The use and function of scientific nameing does not stop with those of genus and species. There are still different hierarchical designations above them.

    Above this is the Family of an organism. This is a wider net that describes many organisms that have similar features.

    Above the Family is the Order of the organism which groups even larger groups of organisms together that have similar traits but that have very large differences.

    Class is the order above Order and is very generic in terminology and includes animals with only a few similar characteristics. Mammalia is one of these classes and includes all mammals since they perform live births (babies), produce milk and have hair. As you know, whales and apes are both mammals but are very different from each other.

    Above Class is Phylum which differentiates organisms into 40 different phyla. These differences between phyla are very distinct. Plants are divided into twelve phyla.

    Kingdom is the next ratifying system and consists of six different categories; Animalia, Bacteria, Archaea, Protista, Fungi and Plantaea.

    Above this is the Domain. This is a two-part split between eukaryote and prokaryote. These are seperated at the cellular level with eukaryotes having a cell nucleus and prokaryotes lacking a nucleus.

    Hopefully, this information will clear up any confusion or misnomers about the scientific classification of living things and the special names that deinfe them.

References

  • Sherborn, Charles Davies. "An index to the generic and trivial names of animals, described by Linnaeus, in the 10th and 12th editions of his "Systema naturae". Nabu Press, 2010.
  • Mader, Sylvia. "Biology". McGraw-Hill, 2009.
  • Image: Statue of Linnaeus by Matt From London/Fotopedia under CC by 2.0.
  • Jennings, Greg. "500 Freshwater Fish: A visual Reference to the Most Popular Species". Firefly Books, 2006
  • Huxley, Thomas Henry. "On the Study of Zoology". FQ Books, 2010.
  • Image: Biological Classification System, Peter Halasz/Wikimedia Commons

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