What can we learn from the father of taxonomy? Two things jump out at me: keep it simple and rules is rules.
The system of naming species was first developed in the mid- 1700s by Carolus Linnaeus, a physician and botanists Linnaeus is the father of the branch of biology called taxonomy, which seeks to describe, name and classify organisms. His system of naming species begins with assigning all species a two-part Latin name called a binomial. The first word of the binomial is the genus name of the species, and the second word is the specific epithet for the species.
Read below to discover the science of the schema and the art of describing life.
LIS 653-02, Spring 2018
The Beautiful Complexity of Naming Every Living Thing
After two centuries of binomial nomenclature, scientists are nowhere close to running out of things to document.
NAMING A SPECIES IS A way to organize and decipher the world—to understand something as itself, and also in relationship to other things. If the goal is to impose order, researchers can’t go around naming things willy-nilly. Everyone must adhere to a system, and there needs to be a process to prevent a creature from being named over and over again, or to keep different species from carrying the same name.
When a researcher suspects she’s encountered a new species, her first step is a deep plunge into the existing literature. The scientist will compare her finding to other descriptions, drawings, and more, to determine how it should be classified. She needs to fully describe the find and then publish the description in a journal. Researchers seek out a “type specimen” or, as Ohl writes, “the individual creatures that scientists lay out on their desks during the naming process and base their names on.” The type specimen becomes a kind of universal delegate for its entire species. (Years later, the dutiful Linnaeus himself would be designated as the type specimen for Homo sapiens.) This representative approach has some drawbacks—namely, the variety that can exist from one individual to another. Researchers must negotiate and interpret these differences, Ohl notes, to find the place where the differences are numerous and clear enough that two animals or plants or fungi can’t be credibly assigned to the same species.
This is no simple task, and it is applied to species both living and long dead. Scientists from the University of Manchester and the College at Brockport, State University of New York, recently studied 99 specimens of Ichthyosaurus, a marine reptile dating to the late Triassic and early Jurassic Period, to document hindfin features across the six known species. In the course of their research, they found significant variations between the fossils. “If we considered the variation as unique, it would mean we would be naming about 30 new species,” said Judy Massare, a coauthor and professor of earth sciences at Brockport, in a statement. “Instead, we had enough specimens to determine that it was just an extreme variation of a common form.”
Many more orders of insects have been described since this etching was made in 1804. Once the hurdles of similarities and differences are cleared, it’s time to choose a name. In binomial nomenclature, Ohl writes, the generic and specific names must each consist of at least two letters. There are a few other official stipulations, outlined in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The name must not belong to another species, it must be a word (or a deliberate approximation of one—no gibberish), it must be free of special characters, such as diacritics, and it has to be rendered in Latin. If the name is drawn from an existing Latin word, the code says that the name must take the gender ending specified in Latin dictionaries. (“Orca,” the Latin world for “a large-bellied pot,” was the basis of Orcinus orca, the killer whale, as well as Orcaella brevirostris, the Irrawaddy dolphin.) Then, “scientists may … deviate from the strict parameters of pure science and indulge in their own preferences and proclivities,” Ohl writes. This is where things can get fun.
The first challenge, Ohl writes, is “to figure out what the name should express.” Sometimes scientists zero in on geography (guess where the cockroach Blatella germanica is from). They might go descriptive, leaning on the classical terms for colors, shapes, body parts, or even behaviors (like that honeybee above).
There are entire catalogues of taxonomic names to serve as inspiration. Researchers also draw from the world outside the laboratory, naming their finds after friends, funders, mentors, or stars. Naming can, in that case, be a strategy for drumming up interest and support—take the 12 species, from a trapdoor spider to a lichen, named after Barack Obama, or the newly christened Haptoclinus dropi, a fish named for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP) expedition that encountered it in a largely unstudied portion of the ocean.
Brian Brown, the curator of the entomology department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, has named 600 species. (Entomologists are among the most prolific namers. Francis Walker, a 19th-century Englishman, named 23,506, though critics accused him of putting pace above rigor.) Brown is an expert in tiny flies. While there a lot of them, he estimates that just 10 percent of the world’s species have been documented so far. With so many in need of names, he says, “it seems to me that agonizing over what to name them is largely a waste of time.” The caveat: “Giving something a name that is particularly unpronounceable is not a service to anybody, especially if it’s going to be widely known.”
Brown is the first to admit that getting the public interested in tiny flies can be a heavy lift. They’re minuscule, unfamiliar, and lacking in the charisma department.
Earlier this year, Brown tried something he hadn’t done before: naming one after a rather well-known bodybuilder, movie star, and politician. “Naming after a celebrity, that has to be done with a light touch,” he says. “Someone who does that a lot is going to saturate the concept pretty quickly.” But in this case, it was descriptive, too. Megapropodiphora arnoldi has bulging legs, which reminded Brown of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. It is also a remarkable species—the smallest parasitic fly recorded to date. “I would only give a celebrity name to something that is kind of special,” Brown says.“I would only give a celebrity name to something that is kind of special.”
There are some who dismiss celebrity names as crass. (It does grab headlines, though. After Peter Jäger, head of arachnology at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, named a spider Heteropoda davidbowie, the arachnid got a write-up in the German edition of Rolling Stone—and on Atlas Obscura.)
Brown sees these types of names as a tool to help inspire people to care about something larger—the state of biodiversity in the Amazon rain forest, for example. “If I had to distill down my main goal, it would be saving tropical forests,” Brown says. “If tweaking people’s interest by naming something after a celebrity can get people thinking, ‘Wow, that’s cool, where’s it from? The Amazon? Well, that must be a really cool place,’ that’s going to work me towards my goal.”
THESE NAMES MAY CARRY THE impression of that they are stable, constant and unchanging, but that is an illusion. New species are recorded all the time, and many of these are cleaved from existing known ones, as new research offers ever-more-fine-grained analysis. On the other hand, researchers sometimes walk back their counts, too, as once-diverged lineages merge together again, or because, in the rush to impose order, scientists apply names to fragments that aren’t up to the label.