How Things Get Named

Part II in a VI part series

21 Patrons & Counting!!

Woohoo! We did it, we reached our first goal on Patreon! We’re now up to 21 patrons and counting. As a thank you, I’ve crafted a longer series on the seemingly impenetrable thicket of scientific names. So if you’ve ever struggled to remember Glaucomys volans or Lithobates sylvaticus, or if you’ve wondered what they heck those names mean, then you’re in luck. Of course, if you want to skip the details and jump right to translation, check out my dictionary of the scientific names: An Etymology of Vermont Vertebrates, which covers all of Vermont’s vertebrates. Otherwise follow along and learn how things are named and how to interpret what their names mean.

⤜ Dictionary of Scientific Names ⤛

How things get named

Brontosaurus was described in 1879 by the paleontologist Othniel Marsh. Less than 25 years later another paleontologist, Elmer Riggs, decided that the bones (which are still up on display at Yale’s Peabody Museum) belonged to the genus Apatosaurus, which had been described in 1877. The older of the two names took priority and the genus “Brontosaurus” was revoked of its officially accepted status. Fortunately for Bronto-philes, an exhaustive re-examination of the bones in 2015 revealed that the bones were sufficiently different from Apatosaurus and the genus Brontosaurus was restored (image from Wikipedia)

For a new species to receive a taxonomic designation, a researcher needs to designate a holotype, the type specimen that acts as the representative of the new species. This is the reference or standard by which later specimens are compared. Holotypes have to be stored or displayed in a museum where it’s accessible to other researchers (check out this episode of This American Life for the tragic story of how many of Alfred Russel Wallace’s type specimens were stolen).

The type specimen then has to be formally described (including subtypes, like male, female, larval forms, etc.) and the description published in a peer-reviewed journal. The digital age has altered the last requirement somewhat and standards for “published” have loosened a bit, which, given the volume of new species being described, has greatly sped up the process. Whoever describes the species is then at liberty to name it whatever he or should would like. If they argue the species should be placed in a new genus, then the researcher(s) gives it both a generic and a specific name, otherwise it just gets the specific epithet.

Etiquette

If a species is later reclassified and moved to a new genus, family, etc., it still retains the specific epithet. Forever. So there’s definitely some etiquette required because once named, the name will remain long after the researcher has passed on. The International Code of Nomenclature does lay out some ground rules for etiquette (link). It’s poor form, for example, to name the species after yourself. That didn’t stop an entomologist for naming a beetle after herself after a grad student auctioned off naming rights (link). Also not great to use profanity or use a name for revenge (e.g. there’s a genus of beetles, Foadia, which apparently is derived from the acronym for F*** Off And Die). Historically, naming species after people was encouraged, though many taxonomists now support more descriptive names. ICN recommends that when naming a species after a person, that the person have particular relevance to the field. But as mentioned above, occasionally a species name goes up for auction and one can buy their way to taxonomic immortality (link). With over 1.5 million named species, it’s no surprise that scientists get creative, and there are some real gems out there:

  • Arthurdactylus conandoylensis: a type of pterosaur named for the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Proceratium google: the Google ant
  • Bombylius aureocookae (pronounced Oreo cookie): a type of beefly
  • Charis ma and Charis matic: a pair of rather aesthetically pleasing butterflies. They’ve been reclassified in a new genus, but kept their specific epithets, ma and matic, which, without the genus name Charis are rather meaningless
  • Eubetia bigaulae (pronounced “You betcha. Bigly”): a type of moth
  • Gelae baen, Gelae belae, Gelae donut, Gelae fish, and Gelae rol: round beetles
  • Notnops, Taintnops, Tisentnops a group of spiders originally classified in the genus Nops, but later research put them in different genera

Crows feeding on the “bobs” of Rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac

Priority & Staghorn Sumac

There are plenty of cases where a species has been described more than once by separate researchers. The first name always takes priority over any latter names (see text below the Brontosaurus image above for a classic example of this). For example, staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, was first described by Linnaeus in 1756. I can’t quite parse out why, but the American botanist, George Bishop Sudworth, referred to it as Rhus hirta Sudw. in his book, Check List of the Forest Trees of the United States: Their Names and Ranges (link). The “Sudw.” refers to who named the species, so here Sudworth is noting that he named the species. You’ll see the older name sometimes written out in full as “R. typhina L.”, where “L.” is for Linnaeus.

Many older texts (and oddly in the 2015 book Vermont Forest Trees) referred to staghorn sumac as Rhus hirta. But regardless of whether Sudworth thought his sumac was a different species from Linnaeus’, it was later determined that the two species were just one and so the first published account and name take priority, and we’re left with R. typhina, not R. hirta.

Some Patterns

Cyanocitta cristata, the blue jay

The scientific name given to each species tend to fall into one of the following 8 categories. Over the next few posts I’ll give you some tips for breaking down scientific names even further.

Pattern Description Example
Morphonym Morphological feature Eastern wood-pewee
Contopus virens
contus: short, pus: foot, virens: green
Toponym A place Canada goose
Branta canadensis
canada: Canada -ensis: belonging to
Taxonym Relationship to another species Alewife
Alosa pseudoharengus
pseudo: false + harengus: herring
Bionym Habitat feature Pine grosbeak
Pinicola enucleator
pinus: pines + -cola: inhabitor of
Autochthonym Modern language equivalent Dovekie
Alle alle
alle: Icelandic word for a dovekie
Eponym A person Upland sandpiper
Bartramia longicauda
bartramia: patronymic of American botanist & ornithologist, William Bartram (1739-1823)
Ergonym Behavior of species Southern flying squirrel
Glaucomys volans
volans: flying
Phagonym Diet Golden-winged warbler
Vermivora chrysoptera
vermis: worm + vora: eat

Betula alleghaniensis, “-ensis” is a common suffix denotes from that region

Resources

  1. An Etymology of Vermont Vertebrates by yours truly
  2. Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (pdf)
  3. Yoon’s Naming Nature
  4. Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (free online)
  5. A good overview of the process for naming a new species (link)

More on the topic

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