Naming names

Before I pop my clogs, I’d like to write a book on the scientific names by which all natural organisms are known — plant and animal and everything in between.

Seriously, it’d be blissful: I’d throw in names like Eschscholzia (six consonants in a row!), Upupa epops (funny-sounding!), or Arcticalymene viciousi (a trilobite named after a Sex Pistol!).

On that last one, by the way, there are many dozens of famous/infamous people/groups that are immortalized in the scientific names of animals or plants: for example, Hugh Hefner (a rabbit), Indira Gandhi (bird), Radiohead (ant), Beyoncé (fly), David Bowie (spider, of course), Mussolini and Hitler (berry and beetle respectively) and Henry Rollins (jellyfish). Frank Zappa’s name is remembered in a rodent, snail, spider, bacterium, jellyfish and fish. The full list of critter-slebs is here.

Now that I have you in my clutches, we will progress to the nitty-gritty: how should we present scientific names?

Please carry on for goodness’ sake

All organisms fit into a naming system that has been refined over the years, thanks in large part to the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, aka Linnaeus. It was his passion for pigeon-holing that led to a formalized system in which every organism owns a unique two-part name.

Domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Human (Homo sapiens). Hoopoe (Upupa epops).

These names draw primarily on Greek or Latin or both, and, while some honour a person or place, others may describe the thing itself. For instance, the seven-spot ladybird is Coccinella septempunctata.

The great advantage of a binomial is that, like an old-school version of the barcode, it bestows uniqueness, which allows scientists to bypass the inconsistency sown by common names. To give you an example, the species known in Britain as the German cockroach is apparently known in Germany as the Russian cockroach, and in Russia as the Polish cockroach. No one wants to own the grubby little sod. So by using its Linnaean name, Blatella germanica, we will avert most international incidents (with apologies to Germans).

Above its binomial, every animal species fits into a hierarchy that branches like a tree and can be remembered by the mnemonic ‘Please Carry On For Goodness’ Sake’, or Phylum>Class>Order>Family>Genus>Species. (There are additional divisions and subdivisions, such as suborders; but PCOFGS are the big six.) Under this system, the domestic dog is classed as follows:

Phylum: Chordata [species with a dorsal nerve cord and other defining features]
Class: Mammalia [all mammals]
Order: Carnivora [carnivores]
Family: Canidae [dog-like carnivores]
Genus: Canis
Species: familiaris

It’s a process of refinement. At the order level, Carnivora contains dogs, bears, raccoons, mustelids, cats, seals and more. But jump down one level to Canidae and we’re dealing only with dogs, wolves, foxes and their ilk. Jump again, to Canis, and we have phased out all of the foxes and some of the dogs. We could even drop below the domestic dog and add a subspecies: the dingo is Canis familiaris dingo.

You’ll see from the above that italics are used only for the binomial (genus and species) and, if present, the subspecies. All higher taxa — Canidae, Carnivora, etc. — are set in Roman type.

Note, too, that the genus name is always capped but the species name never is, even if it derives from a proper name. See, for example, germanica and viciousi above.

Also, for the sake of economy, we can abbreviate genus and/or species names after their first mention:

  • Canis familiaris is found worldwide, but C. f. dingo is restricted to Australia.

Proper noun vs generic form

Any formal taxon name can be extracted into a generic noun or adjective. So, members of Canidae are canids (n.), and a domestic dog has typical canid (adj.) dentition. Tyrannosaurus rex was a tyrannosaur. A llama is a camelid (family Camelidae). Note how the extracted words do not have an initial capital.

What you want to avoid is mixing this system up. Do not, for instance, talk about Carnivores. They’re carnivores (also known as carnivorans), in the order Carnivora.

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