Monday, 25 November 2013

Nomenclature – What’s really in a name?

by Sam Matchette

If I were to ask you what Captain Blackbeard, the Rocky Mountains and jeggings all have in common, what would you say? No, this is not a joke – although this would make for a very intriguing start to a ‘… walked in to a bar’ gag. The answer is simple: they each have a very appropriate and informative name. Captain Blackbeard had a beard that was (probably) black, the Rocky Mountains are certainly rocky and jeggings are the most recent descriptive portmanteau to hit our vocabulary shelves! However, the art of nomenclature (naming) isn’t always as straight forward; a point very relative in the biological world with regards to naming species; formally called Binomial nomenclature.

First and foremost, binomial nomenclature itself differs depending upon the organism you are dealing with. If you are naming animals, you would consider the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), whereas for plants, fungi or algae you would use the – very appropriately named - International Code for Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants (ICN). Both resources enforce a series of codes and rules that one must abide by, in order to maintain evidential consistency throughout the natural world.

Focusing upon the animal kingdom, the ICZN has six main principles. When a species is first discovered, it is described and given a name. The first principle, named binomial nomenclature, states that the name of any given animal is made up of two Latin names (binomen); a generic name and a specific name. Devised by Carl Linnaeus, this principle embodies all the species seen today, including Homo sapiens, Passer domesticus, Gibbula umbilicalis. This name must be unique, as claimed by the principle of homonymy. The discovered organism’s name is recorded on an ICZN database together with name of its discoverer and the date of discovery. For each species ever described on the database, there is usually a list of names (both generic and specific) provided after the first, long-standing name was put forward. These, essentially irrelevant, names are called the junior synonyms. They only come in to play if a re-classification occurs. If there is a species-split with a new population needing a name, the principle of priority ensures that the new specific name is the oldest available junior synonym. Those name conflicts that cannot be resolved using priority are resolved by the principle of first reviser; the first subsequent author decides which name(s) to use from that moment on. Slightly more confusing is the principle of coordination; which presents when a family-group name, genus-group name or species-group name is established, all other relevant groups must also simultaneously bear that name with relevant prefixes. For example, the family name Giraffidae was established, meaning that the sub-family name (should we need one) automatically becomes Giraffinae. Linking with this is the principle of typification. This claims that any family-group name must have a type (or representative) genus and any genus-group name must have a type species. For example, the family name of Giraffidae has Giraffa as its type genus (as in Giraffa camelopardalis).

Despite the terrifying formality of this process, if all principles are fulfilled, then the fun can begin. And boy, do scientists like to have fun! The beauty of needing to be unique (as the principle of homonymy requires) is that you can be as creative as you like. After all, as with everything, names come in all shapes and sizes; from the great evening bat, Ia io, to the soldier fly, Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides.

Longdong stream salamander 
Unsurprisingly, over the years, the concoction of creativity and taxonomy has produced some very interesting results. Usually, names originate from a description, a location, a person or an organisation relative to the organism’s discovery; however some have become remarkably tenuous and down-right crude. An example that springs to mind is the Batrachuperus longdongensis; a stream salamander with – you guessed it - an in-conspicuously long penis. Less subtle is the lily plant with the name Narcissus assoanus – discovered seemingly by a scientist with a phenomenal grudge. Scientists have even delved in to the world of popular media; notably the spider, Apopyllus now, who appears to be an avid Martin Sheen fan.

One of my personal favourites – from a devilishly, imaginative view point – is the Thorny Devil. This lizard’s scientific name is Moloch horridus; honouring the heaven-rebelling demon Moloch known to devour children, aptly comparative to the lizard’s diet of unsuspecting ants. Furthermore, many scientists have dabbled in creative word-play; creating such scientific names as the leafhopper family, Cicadellidae, which is officially the longest word with all its letters twice, or the palindromic beetle, Orizabus subaziro.

Thorny Devil
For the narcissistic among you, it may be disappointing to hear that it’s just ‘not cricket’ when you name a species after yourself. However, there are ways and means of overcoming this. The obvious being to find a friend that shares your desire to have a species named after them, and then each simultaneously discover a species that can be named after the other person. Undoubtedly fiendish, but no less true as the taxonomists Reichardt and Lange-Bertalot evidently proved; honouring each other with name-bearing species in a Diatom genus.

So, if you’re the buddy biologist type endeavouring for a life of research, you may just want to take a moment and think: what would my species name be? It may be more fun than you think. Now, “Captain Blackbeard, the Rocky Mountains and some Jeggings walk in to a bar…”