Naming Things

When it comes to putting a name on a particular organism, there are several complications.

Common names are generally easy to remember, since they are usually based on words from everyday language. It would seem to make sense for everyone to use them. But they do have their share of problems:

  • Common names vary from region to region. Any single organism may be known by one name in one area and by a completely different name somewhere else.
  • Likewise an organism may have several common names associated with it, even among those living in a single area.
  • To make things worse, a common name can refer to any number of different organisms.
  • Many species, especially those that are small or have little economic or cultural impact, do not have common names.
  • Common names would not be able to cross language barriers intact. Even if there was some way to standardize common names, they would be different for every language.

Scientists working on a global scale and corresponding with people from other countries need to have a common naming system that gives each species a specific, unique designation.

As you are probably aware, there is a system that does just that. Known by the term Binomial Nomenclature or Scientific Name, this system uses Latin, which was the primary language of science and art in the 18th century.

This method has several potential advantages over common naming:

  • The name of a species is the same worldwide, with no duplicates or other organisms with the same designation to cause confusion.
  • Every known entity is given a specific name.
  • The name often refers to a specific quality of the species
  • This naming scheme links organisms together which contain common traits from biological ancestors.

Since binomial nomenclature is tied into the overall method of Biological Classification, we will take a brief look at this scientific taxonomy procedure on our our way towards a proper introduction of binomial nomenclature.

Biological classification is a hierarchical arrangement of organisms based on DNA similarities in ancestry. Nested levels are organized into eight major taxonomic ranks with each successive rank including more narrowly defined characteristics.

Starting with the broadest rank, the list is: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.

For example, the organism with the common name Honey Bee is categorized this way:

Domain: Eukarytoa – Includes plants and animals as well as other organisms, and is separated from the other two domains, Bacteria and Archaea (single-celled organisms with no cell nucleus).

Kingdom: Animalia – This separates animals from plants, fungi, bacteria, protozoa and chromista (which includes giant kelp as well as diatoms).

Phylum: Arthropoda – Distinguished by the presence of an exoskeleton, a segmented body and jointed appendages. This phylum includes insects, crustaceans, spiders and centipedes.

Class: Insecta – Creatures with a three-part body including a head, thorax and abdomen (adult stage), six jointed legs, compound eyes and antennae,

Order: Hymenoptera – Members of this group include bees, wasps and ants

Family: Apidae – Several types of bees comprise this family

Genus: Apis – The group of honey producing bees

Species: mellifera – The specific honey bee with the common name Western Hive bee or honey bee.

For the purpose of simplification, intermediate minor ranks have been omitted. However, it should be noted that there may also be a further division of organisms beyond the species rank, with the classification of Subspecies. In example above, the Western Hive bee is of the subspecies ligustica. For plants, additional divisions can also be made in the form of varieties and sub-varieties.

So now that we have looked at the biological classification system, let’s see how that translates into specific naming of an organism.

It is actually very simple. Binomial Nomenclature uses the genus name followed by the species to indicate the name of an entity. Both words are italicized (except when placed in a block of italicized text). The first letter of the genus is always capitalized and the species is to be in all lower case letters.

For the Western Hive bee, the scientific name would look like this:

Apis mellifera

And if the subspecies is added, it would be indicated like this:

Apis mellifera ligustica

If you have identified an organism down to the genus but do not know the species, it can be shown this way:

Apis sp.

Naming has shifted away from classifications based upon physical appearance towards genetic comparisons, due to advancements in genetic testing techniques.

Because of this, the biological classification system has been in a constant state of change as new discoveries are made. There are disagreements among scientists about how to interpret this new information and how different organisms now fit into the taxonomic ranks. This has created complications similar to those of using only common names.

But even with these problems, using scientific names does give us a very specific way to identify and communicate about unique organisms.

I generally use a popular common name together with the scientific name when I want people to know exactly which organism I am referring to.