The science and art of naming species


What’s in a name? What we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet,” laments Juliet in the Shakespearean tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. However, for many of us who study biology, the name can be everything.

We have all, at some point, tried to identify a bird or a plant. Often we end up with “Oh, there’s a tamarind tree” or “Oh, look, there’s a house sparrow”. Scientific names such as Tamarindus indicus Where Skip Domestic referring to the same species might scare people off. The complexity of the names comes from the combination of languages ​​that are largely foreign to us: Greek and Latin.

The two-name concept

In the days when scientists were describing the natural world, they used a multi-name structure to describe species, having something descriptive in the name. Much of this was happening in parts of Europe. Latinizing the names was a norm. This often resulted in names that were too long.

In 1735, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, improvised a rudimentary system to implement the binomial nomenclature system. The words binomial and nomenclature come from a combination of Greek and Latin. Almost all species are known today in this format.

In this format, the first part refers to what is called a genus and the second part refers to the species. This makes it easy for people to know that a set of species are related to each other. For instance, Homo sapiens and Homo neandrethalensis are two species of the genus Homo.

The arrangement of species in their related order to one another was largely based on morphological characteristics. However, nowadays scientists rely on multiple sources of evidence such as DNA, vocalization and morphology. Relying on morphology alone could be misleading as several groups of unrelated organisms often develop similar characteristics. For example, bats and birds have wings. But bats are mammals and birds are not.

Who decides on the names?

Researchers who study biodiversity and assign names are called taxonomists. The study of the meaning of names is called etymology. There is a rigorous process involved in naming species. Although they can choose any names they want, there are general rules governing the description of species and the assignment of names.

Two sets of bodies govern the nomenclature process. The one for animals is called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The one for plants is called the International Code of Nomenclature of Algae, Fungi and Plants. The researcher must collect and preserve a physical specimen or piece as a “type” in a publicly accessible museum. The type specimen becomes the future benchmark of the species. Often, when the type specimen is lost, another specimen is designated as the type.

Botanical types are dried and preserved in herbaria. In India, collection of specimens is governed by the National Biodiversity Act and the Wildlife Protection Act, as well as the animal ethics committees of the researcher’s host institution. The morphology and other details of the species should be fully described and published in a journal with either ISSNs or ISBNs available in print or online.

Basically, the name given must be unique and not already in use within this group. To eliminate duplication, there is now an online repository where names must be formally registered with the reference number linked to the publication. The name cannot be rude to anyone and people are not supposed to put their own name. There are, however, many examples of all of this.

Naming after “characters”

International codes required the Latinization of names, but this rule is now relaxed. Regional languages ​​now find a place in the list of names. For example, we named a frog from the coastal region of Karnataka, Phrynoderma karaavali because the frog is there. Locals know the area as “karaavali” in Kannada. The name of the genus is however Latinized. Phrynoderma means warty skin. The tamarind tree, for example, comes from the Arabic expression Tamar-e-hind, which is transliterated to the dates of India. Names referring to the locality where the species is found are called toponyms.

There is also a long-standing practice of naming species after people – patronymics, used in various contexts. Historically, Linnaeus himself named species after people to trick them into opening their purses or currying, or even insulting people. He named an insect Aphanus rolandri to “honor” his pupil Rolander with whom he did not get along well. By calling the gender “Aphanuswhich is Greek for ignoble or obscure, Linnaeus made his dislike clear.

But surnames risk taking away the charm of highlighting something about the species itself. Many Latinized names mean a lot to someone, even with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek and Latin. The common Indian bull frog, Hoplobatrachus tigerinus comes from the Greek—Hoplon (shield) and Batrachos (frog) and Tigerenus (tiger stripes). Both characteristics are immediately visible on the large frog, measuring up to the length of our palm, with stripes on the body and legs. If the same species were to be named after someone, it will say nothing about the animal. Researchers continue to name species after celebrities and accomplished scientists, but the use of surnames may fail to highlight the characters of the organism.

Finally, as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman says, there is a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. There is profound wisdom in his words when taken in the context of biodiversity conservation. It is urgent to know the names of certain organisms and to try to understand their role in the fragile ecosystem in order to be able to conserve them.

(With contributions from Dr. Harish Prakash, Post-Doc, IISc, Bengaluru)


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