Binomial Nomenclature: What's in a Name?

Binomial Nomenclature: What's in a Name?

Apr 25, 2014| by administrator


Our world is vast and the list of animals living in it seems infinite. It may seem like a daunting task to try and document each and every living organism known to man, and indeed it can be. However, thanks to the system of binomial nomenclature, the name game is much less complicated than it seems. Each recognized animal species is given a two-part name which is  important for many different reasons.

1. Global Communication

Let's say you're an American marine biologist who wants to discuss the migratory habits of capelin, a type of fish, with an Icelandic researcher. How will he know what fish you're referring to if the animal has a different name in English than it does in Icelandic? For this reason, every animal species has an official scientific name: no matter where you are in the world or what language a person speaks, the capelin's official title is Mallotus villosus. Every scientific name is unique because no species is the same, which helps in clearing up any confusion on an international level.

2. Animal Description

As aforementioned, it's called binomial nomenclature because the animal is given a two-part name. But how is each name assigned? The first part is the generic name and the second is the specific name. This system is helpful in describing how some animals are closely related to others. For example, the scientific name of the Bay-breasted Warbler is Dendroica castanea while the Praire Warbler is Dendroica discolor. Having the same generic name implies these two birds are genetically similar, however their different specific name suggests they are not the same species, and instead identifies them as individuals.

The names are also chosen depending on their features suggesting something about the animal. For example, the black rhinoceros is called Diceros bicornis because bicornis means two horns. Animals could also be named after a scientist who discovered the species, like Darwin's frog, the Rhinoderma darwinii, or named after the place in which they were found, like the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) an amphibian found in Mexico.

3. Common Names Misleading

Common names of an animal, though widely accepted, can be totally misleading. For instance, a starfish indeed does look like a star, but it is not a fish. A starfish is actually an echinoderm, which means it is more closely related to sea urchins and sea cucumbers than any fish. Another example is the Red Panda. Though correct in color description, it is not at all related to the black and white Giant panda one immediately imagines. In fact, it looks more like and is closer related to a raccoon. For this reason, scientific names are used to better categorize animals.

So while many of these scientific names can be difficult to pronounce or remember, the binomial nomenclature system is really important in the world of wildlife research. Because of the globally accepted rules, animals all over the world are documented and discoveries made are more easily communicated with everyone.