What’s in a name?

By Duncan Murdock, research fellow

Whether it’s the Physeter macrocephalus (Sperm Whale) whose jaw greets our visitors, the Apus apus (European Swift) which spend the summer nesting in the tower, or the Raphus cucullatus (Dodo) on our Museum’s logo, all animals, plants, fungi and microbes, living and extinct, have scientific names – or at least once they have been properly described in a scientific paper they do. Usually found tucked away on specimen labels, scientific names carry much more significance than just a convenient means of reference.

The jaw of the Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

The scientific name, also known as a binominal or Latin name, consists of two basic parts, and should be written in italics. The first part is the genus (the plural is genera), which refers to anything from one to thousands of kinds of creature that are more closely related to each other than anything else. Genera are always capitalised, such as Panthera (big cats).

The second part is the specific name, written in lower case. Together these define one species; for example a tiger is Panthera tigris. Sometimes, subspecies or varieties are written after the species name, such Panthera tigris tigris, which is the Bengal Tiger. They can also be abbreviated by replacing the genus with just an initial followed by a full stop, hence the ever-popular T. rex, or Tyrannosaurus rex.

T. rex in the Museum’s centre court

Some binomials are pretty easy to decipher: no prizes for working out Gorilla gorilla*. Others can seem pretty cryptic or even positively confusing – Puffinus puffinus anyone? Yep, that’s right, the Manx Shearwater**. Nevertheless, once translated they are often enlightening as to the appearance, distribution, behaviour, or history of the critter in question.

Here are a few examples. Ailuropoda melanoleuca, meaning ‘black and white cat-foot’, describes the appearance of the Giant Panda pretty well; Megaptera novaeangliae, or ‘giant-wing of New England’, alludes to both the anatomy and chequered history of the humpback whale; and while Pteropus vampyrus, or ‘wing-footed vampire’, is a bit of a misnomer for the flying fox, which is a large fruit-eating bat, it does reflects our changing understanding of the animal.

Gorilla gorilla, the Western Gorilla
Magpie (Pica pica)

Some names are elegantly concise: Pica pica, the magpie. Some are tongue-twisters: Phalacrocorax carbo, the Great Cormorant. And some, such as Synalpheus pinkfloydiare entertaining. But they are all more than just names; they are the most visible aspect of the science of taxonomy.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) first formalised the system we use today, which has allowed us to divide all the many species into not just genera, but a nested hierarchy of ever-more inclusive groups.

With this system we can not only be sure we are using a common language to precisely refer to the right species, but we can also then ask questions about how the staggering diversity of life that we see evolved. And from this we start to build ‘a tree of life’. But this will be the subject of a future article…

* Bonus points for knowing it’s the Western Gorilla, as opposed to Gorilla beringei, which is the Eastern Gorilla.

** Common Puffins, by the way, go by the delightful name Fratercula arctica, the ‘little friar of the north’.

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More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

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