"Nature Guide Journal"
9 August 2001
Every serious naturalist is quickly immersed in a sea of
scientific names as he or she graduates to more technical
resources. Although the foreign words may be intimidating at
first, they become very useful and informative with a small
amount of background information.
The basic scientific name has two parts that together
identify a species. A "species" is usually defined as
a group of organisms related closely enough to allow successful
interbreeding among members.
Rather like listing a person's family name first, the first
name in the set of two denotes the group one step up from
individual species, the "genus." The second name in
the set denotes the species within the genus.
Part of the beauty of using this double name system is that
it illustrates the relationship between closely related species.
For example, the dog genus, Canis, has several well-known
species: Canis domesticus (the domestic dog); Canis
latrans (the coyote); and Canis lupus (the wolf). The
red fox, Vulpes fulva, is different enough to be in a
different genus, Vulpes.
The words used in the naming are usually Latin or Latinized
(sometimes Greek or Greek-influenced) descriptions of the
organism, though sometimes organisms are named in honor of a
person or place. Acer macrophyllum identifies a maple (Acer
is the classical Latin word for deciduous tree) that has large
("macro") leaves ("phyllum")—"big-leaf
maple." Acer circinatum is a maple with circular
leaves—our vine maple. Acer japonicum is, of course,
Scientific names also eliminate confusion and ambiguity. In
some cases, a single kind of plant or animal may have more than
one common name ("cougar," "mountain lion,"
"puma," for example). In other cases, one common name
may be used for many different species–"dandelion"
comes to mind. And, most species, counting those microscopic,
have no common name at all. Using a scientific name clearly
indicates a member of a particular species.
The names are authorized by widely accepted commissions or
groups that evaluate the names and research on the relationships
between species. Scientific names may change as our knowledge
about a given species improves. The most common kind of change
occurs when a species is deemed to be more or less closely
related to species in a particular genus, resulting in the genus
name changing to another established genus or changing to a new,
The genus and species are just part of the overall taxonomy
(the orderly classification based on relationship). Although
subspecies are sometimes indicated (either spelled out or as
"ssp"), higher levels of relationship are generally
not part of the scientific name.
As a matter of form, scientific names are always in italics
or underlined (rarely in bold type), and the first letter of the
genus name is always capitalized. The species name is always
lower case in the modern usage, though some still use the older
practice of capitalizing the species if it’s a proper noun.
The genus name is often given just by initial in a list of
species in the same genus or if the genus has just been
mentioned in the document.
Although it is certainly not the most important aspect of
learning about a plant or animal of our world, the scientific
name is a capsule of interesting and pertinent information about
the organism. The precision, description, and demonstrated
relatedness that comes with using scientific names is ample
reward for the effort.
For more information on taxonomy, visit our site
on The Five Kingdoms.