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How are scientific names developed?
Question Date: 2010-01-02
Answer 1:

I am guessing that you mean the names that we give to organisms when they are first discovered and described - the Genus, species name? This is referred to as the "binomial name" and is the end point of the Biological Classification system. We always italicize the Genus, species (and capitalize Genus while leaving the species lower case). Sometimes you see a third name - the "epithet" of the species name.

There is quite a bit of history behind the answer to this naming question, but the short answer is that the naming is based on a taxonomic system or code developed by Carl Linneaus in the 1700s. This was pretty controversial back then. The idea is to name living things in a way that helps us "organize" them into related groups (a taxonomy) based on their forms and traits. Many names are based on Latin words (sometimes Greek) and often, the discoverer's name is embedded in the species name (especially in epithets). Recently, some newly discovered organisms have been named as a result of e-bay auctions -- the highest bidder gets to name the organism! But the names still tend to follow the "rules" of the Linnean taxonomy. You can read more about Biological Classification on a great wiki site:


However the question of whether we (scientists) should continue with the Linnean taxonomic code or adopt something different is a very hot topic, believe it or not. The problem with the old Linnean system is that although the organism's traits and form usually reveal an evolutionary relationship, this is not always the case.

There was a good article about the issue in American Scientist in 2006: Attacks on Taxonomy attacks-on-taxonomy

Discover magazine also ran an article that focused more on the people and the controversy: Pushing Phylocode Pushing_Phylocode

Regardless of what naming system is eventually used, it is fun to look up the meanings of the official, scientific names of organisms.

Two of my favorites are:
Theobroma cacao ("food of the gods") - the cacao tree; Linnaeus himself named this one (I wonder if he liked chocolate as much as I do?)Mephitis mephitis ("smelliest of the smelly") - striped skunk.

On the chance that maybe you also are asking about "naming" in general, most scientific names tend to be descriptive, yet still rooted in Latin or Greek. Names of constellations or nebula, for example. Or even muscles of the human body (gluteus maximus - the big, strong muscle that you sit on!; sartorius, named after Sartor, the Latin tailor - stretching from the lower groin to the knee, and most prominent when sitting cross-legged, as traditional tailors did; and finally, levator palpebrae superioris alequae nasi, the muscle whose name is so over the top that it sneers at all others, because it is the muscle that makes you lift the end of your lip and sneer!).

Now with all of the genome projects, scientists are working out ways to give all these genes "names" that make sense and allow us to keep track of what is what. Most of the time there is a letter-number code used. But some scientists still like to give descriptive names. For example, there is a gene that was discovered in the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) called Strabismus. When the Strabismus gene is mutated or missing, the cells in the fly's eyes no longer align properly, affecting its vision. Strabismus is Latin (and the medical term) for .... cross-eyed!

Answer 2:

Scientific names are very important.Thats how scientists make sure they are talking about the same thing. Often, there are several common names for one species (mountain lion, cougar, puma, etc.) or people use a common word for a number of species (there are many species that people commonly call a mouse). Every species on earth, whether it is a species of fish, bacteria, fungus, or tree gets its own scientific name. The basic system has been around since the 1700s. The rules for the scientific name are:

1. The name has two parts; first, the genus name and then the species or trivial name. If my email comes through correctly, all of the scientific names are in italics. In a scientific name, the genus is capitalized, the specific or trivial name is non capitalized, and the whole name is underlined or italicized.
2. The genus name is a noun, and the species or trivial name is usually an adjective (a describing word). Ursus arctos means is the scientific name of the grizzly bear. Ursus means bear, which is a noun. Of course, not all grizzly bears live in the Arctic, but thats still their name because?
3. Scientific names are based on Latin. Latin is called a dead language because almost no one uses it for day-to-day communication. This is handy because living languages like English, Spanish, and Hmong, change as people use them. In Latin, arctos means north. Not all grizzly bears live in the far north either, but?
4. The first person to name, describe, and put an example of the species into a museum gets to name it. The name only gets changed if scientists learn something about the species evolutionary history to make them change the name. So you might not think that arctos is the best description of a grizzly, but thats not enough to change their name. An example of a name that changed is the American bison. It used to be called Bison bison, meaning the bison that is the only bison. Then people recognized that bison and cows can breed with each other, so they changed the name to Bos bison, meaning the cow that is a bison, because?
5. If two species can interbreed, they must be closely related, and so they must be in the same genus.

Sometimes scientists have fun with naming species. They may honor someone in a specific name. The cartoonist Gary Larson was honored in the name of a sucking louse. Ba humbug is the name of a snail. There is a web site of funny or unusual scientific names for animals at:
Take a look at scientific names of some species you know and see if you can figure out what they mean.

Thanks for asking,

Answer 3:

Scientific names are developed and re-developed! We keep getting more information, and that makes some of the old names wrong. For example, I heard about a plant collection where they discovered 2 plants were identified as different species; but it turned out that they were the same plant, and one of them had some disease! When I worked at the National Science Foundation [NSF], one of the program officers told me the family with dandelions had been changed from Composites to Asters because the South Americans called the family Asters. Then another program officer told me: actually, the whole rest of the world called the family Asters. And now with all the new DNA sequences, we understand the evolutionary relationships between organisms in so much more detailed. Now there are people who want to throw out all the scientific names of plants and animals and other organisms and just give them numbers. Scientists who work with names of organisms talk a lot about clades now, which is a new term.

Answer 4:

Scientific names are given by the individual scientists who describe a new organism, and publish it in the scientific literature. There are a lot of rules on how to describe an organism, although they aren't always used and not everybody agrees with their use. Any published name has to pass the gauntlet of peer review, which is where other scientists in the field look at an article and determine whether or not it is good science and should be published.

Answer 5:

The use of scientific names started in the 1700s by Carl Linn (better known as Linnaeus) an avid botanist. He decided that each unique organism needed to have a unique scientific name. Linnaeus developed binomial nomenclature (two names) for genus and species. Linneus also specified that each name had to be of Latin or Greek derivation (the classic languages), that each organism had to be specifically defined (in Latin), and published. A very good and reliable website that goes into much detail can be found here:


As for use of scientific names in modern science, each organism still maintains one accepted name (of Latin or Greek origin) that has been fully described (no longer in Latin) and also now includes genetic and/or lineage relationships. One big advantage to having specific scientific names is that scientists from different areas and languages can interact and know that they are talking about the same organism. I have many times used literature written in Chinese (which I cant read) but containing scientific names written in Latin (which I can read) and determine if that publication is of use to me. Or the names are associated with pictures that can help with identification. Also, if you talk to different people common names can vary greatly. One example is Felix concolor (genus and species are always either underlined when handwritten or italicized in print to identify the taxonomic level). The common name can be puma, mountain lion or cougar just to name a few.

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