What’s in a name?

The naming of moths is a difficult matter

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m mad as a hatter

When I tell you a moth must have two different names

Entomologist John W. Brown, inspired by T.S. Elliot


Some people are intrigued by scientific names, and others think of them as just academic snobbery, writes Athayde Tonhasca.  If we see a honey bee, why call it Apis mellifera? Well, there are at least seven species of honey bee around the world. In Britain we only have Apis mellifera, but in certain parts of Asia, a honey bee could be Apis cerana, Apis koschevnikovi, or Apis nigrocincta. And even though we have a single honey bee species, it has two common names: the western honey bee or the European honey bee.

Common names are imprecise and potentially confusing; the bird we call ‘robin’ in Britain is the species Erithacus rubecula; in North America, a ‘robin’ is a bird related to our blackbirds, Turdus migratorius. The name ‘badger’ refers to various animals worldwide that are superficially similar but are not closely related to each other: our badger, Meles meles, is not the same badger found in North America (Taxidea taxus), which is different from the Asian badger (Mellivora capensis), and so on.

In contrast, scientific names are used all over the world, avoiding confusion and the difficulties of translation. The second largest predatory cat in the Americas may be called a cougar, puma, mountain lion, red tiger or panther (and many other names in other languages), but to a zoologist it is always Puma concolor. It crosses all linguistic barriers, and allows no ambiguity.

But why use Latin, a dead language? For centuries, Latin was the international language of science, philosophy, religion and diplomacy. Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the Swedish botanist who disseminated the method of naming species in two parts (binominal nomenclature), wrote in Latin, and so did other scientists and educated people across much of the world. Also, Latin has two advantages. As it no longer evolves and changes like modern languages do, it provides a stable, reliable tool to generations of taxonomists. And it does not favour any particular national language or culture.

The first part of the scientific name identifies the genus to which the species belongs. A “genus” (plural “genera”) is a group of related species such as Apis. The second part (the epithet) identifies the species within the genus, such as mellifera. By convention, the genus is always capitalized, while the epithet is always in lower case. And the whole name should be printed in a font different from that used in normal text, usually italics. A binomial name is treated grammatically as Latin, but the two parts can each be derived from a number of sources. For a long time, well-educated people were taught Latin and ancient Greek, so names derived from these two ancient languages were, and still are, used frequently. For example, our own species, Homo sapiens are Latin words meaning “human/man” (Homo) and “wise” (sapiens). The genus Rhododendron was named by Linnaeus from a Greek word derived from rhodos, (rose) and dendron (tree). So there you have the basic rules of expressing a scientific name.

There is another important reason for naming species. It allows us to talk and think about them individually. Every time a new species is described, it is like a ‘birth certificate’ has been issued. If we don’t know the names of animals, plants and other organisms, it is difficult to draw up legal protection plans, study them or stir public interest. The number of animal species on Earth is estimated to be around 8 million, but only 12% of them have been named. We can’t properly measure life on the planet without naming more of those species.

Every name has a story, and sometimes the story is poignant. The bumble bee Bombus rubriventris is known from a single specimen collected at least 180 years ago, but we have no other record or any information about it. This specimen was probably collected in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, which has suffered extensive habitat degradation over the centuries, and today little of it remains. So the sole creature in the world named Bombus rubriventris siting inside a dark drawer in an insect collection in Oxford is the only evidence of a bee that once buzzed from flower to flower in a tropical forest, and which has been lost forever.


Bombus rubriventris

Image copyright, Paul Williams, 2014, Journal of Natural History, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00222933.2014.954022. © Natural History Museum, London.