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Have you ever noticed that, when you’re looking at websites, textbooks, and other literature, animal and plant names aren’t always listed as you recognize them? That’s because, as well as their common names, flora and fauna are also given scientific names. This can seem a little confusing when you don’t know much about it, but I’m going to share everything you need to know in this guide.
What is Binomial Nomenclature?
The term binomial nomenclature refers to the scientific name given to all plants and animals. You might wonder why this system is in place, but when you think about the potential language barriers between scientists, it all becomes clear.
The common names for animals are different in all languages. For example, a cat in French is called un chat, while in German, they say eine katze, and so on. This would get confusing, which is why the binomial nomenclature was invented by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and zoologist from the 1700s, so that all animals had one scientific name that broke the language barrier.
Scientific names are broken down into two parts (that’s where the term BInomial comes from). The first part tells us the genus while the second part refers to the species. For example, the name felis catus is the scientific name for cat, while canis lupus familiaris is the scientific name for dog.
New species are constantly being discovered and these all need to be given a scientific name. But for anyone that believes science is boring; think again. The names given to some of these animals are highly creative and interesting. For example, there’s a fly named after songstress, Beyonce, because of its golden abdominal hairs. It’s called Scaptia beyonceae!
Benefits of Using Scientific Names for Flora & Fauna
When you first look at the scientific names of plants and animals, they can seem a bit daunting. However, once you’re familiar with them, everything seems to fall into place, and it’s obvious that there are benefits to using them over the common names for these species.
As I discussed earlier, the common names for flora and fauna vary greatly between languages. In order to better communicate and avoid confusion, scientists can use these scientific names, which are the same regardless of where you are in the world or what language you speak.
What’s more, these names make it much easier to put animals and plants into classes and give a sense of organization. This is because of the structure of the name, which specifies both the genus and the species. That’s much more helpful information than just something like giraffe.
And if that wasn’t enough, having these names helps to clarify differences between the species within a genus, again making things much less confusing. Moreover, the names of various species can and are changed to avoid confusion. For example, whereas once all cat species were in the Felis genus, this has since been split into three to better describe each animal. Where the bobcat was once called Felis rufus, it’s now called Lynx rufus, which is a much more apt description.
Criteria for Naming a Species
The name for people that come up with the scientific names for flora and fauna are called taxonomists – yes there’s actually a specific job title for this!
When Carl Linneaus came up with the idea for the binomial system, he first needed to choose a language. Since Latin was no longer used nor was it developing, it was the perfect choice. Plus, each animal could be given a name that wouldn’t change or mean anything else.
Another issue faced by taxonomists when choosing a name is that it must adhere to the standards laid out by the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature or for plants, the International Code for Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants. There is extensive literature provided for these codes, but it’s complex and detailed. In short, scientists must ensure that they choose a unique name, one that is not offensive, and the name chosen cannot be that of the taxonomist choosing it.
How to Write Scientific Names Correctly?
As with any aspect of language, the binomial system comes with its own set of grammar rules. But don’t worry, they’re not overly complicated.
The first part of the name, or the genus, must always be capitalized regardless of where it appears within a sentence.
The second part of the name that refers to the species should not be capitalized even where it might seem that it should be. Let’s take the example I used earlier of the Scaptia beyonceae. When you write the name Beyonce, it would be capitalized which can seem confusing at first. But it’s something you’ll get used to.
When you are writing the scientific name of an animal or plant, it must always be in italics. Of course, when you’re writing by hand, this isn’t always as simple, so instead, you should underline the name.
How to Abbreviate Scientific Names?
Once you’ve wrapped your head around the grammar and format of the binomial system, there’s still one more thing to learn; abbreviations. These are used in place of the species name in several instances as follows:
- Sp would be used instead of a species name if you wish to refer to only the genus and not a particular species.
- Spec is the alternative form of the above when talking about plants.
- Spp would be used in place of the species name when you wish to refer to several species within a genus.
- Sspp is used when you wish to refer to several subspecies.
- Subspp is the alternative for the above when talking about plants.
- Ssp is used to refer to an unidentified subspecies within a genus
- Subsp is the alternative for the above when talking about plants.
- Cf is used when talking about a species whose identity is yet to be confirmed.
Fauna & Flora with Strange Scientific Names
Naming species is a pretty fun job as it allows taxonomists to let their creative juices flow. And they haven’t let us down with some very interesting names. Let’s take a look at some of the most inspired!
1. Ba humbugi
Found only on the island of Viti Levu in Fiji, the Ba humbugi is the smallest mollusk on the planet and it’s also aptly named after the notorious Scrooge from A Christmas Carol.
Measuring just over 0.08 inches (2mm), this tiny snail is sadly endangered, but at least its name brings a smile to the face. It was for this very reason that taxonomer, Alan Solem chose the name.
Being the only snail within the genus, Ba was invented purely for this creature and named after an area on the island where the snail is found. With Ba, Solem had the irresistible urge to dub the snail humbugi because, why not?
2. Scaptia beyonceae
When we think of Queen B, we imagine the feisty, super-talented diva that headlined the globally successful girl group, Destiny’s Child. But did you know that Beyonce also inspired the scientific name of a fly?
The Scaptia beyonceae is a type of horsefly that’s native to the northeastern part of Australia. While the fly was initially discovered in the early 80s, it wasn’t named until much later in 2011.
At this time, scientists chose the name of this golden-butted fly in honor of the performer and her bootyliciousness and dubbed it the ‘diva of all flies.’
3. Noah’s Ark Shell (Arca noae)
The scientific name for the Noah’s Ark shell is Arca noae and there’s no hidden meaning behind its name. Apparently, taxonomers described the shell as looking like Noah’s Ark and named it as such. Simple, yet effective.
These shells belong to a family of bivalves that are found only in the Mediterranean Sea, where they live up to 197 feet (60 meters) below the surface. While numbers did decline for a period, populations seem to be rising, which is good news for humans as this is a popular type of seafood.
4. Aha ha
Imagine naming a species after making a verbal declaration that you’d discovered something new. Well, that’s exactly how the Aha ha got its name.
A species of wasp from Australia, Aha ha was discovered by Howard Ensign Evans in the 1960s. Upon examining the specimen, he exclaimed Aha to which his coworker responded ha. And as crazy as it might sound, the name stuck!
Not content with simply having named the species, Howard went on to have his car registration plate changed to reflect it.
5. Heteropoda davidbowie
David Bowie was an inspiration for many reasons, but not all of them are obvious. For example, he was the inspiration behind the naming of a type of huntsman spider found in Malaysia.
The spider, Heteropoda davidbowie, took its name for two reasons. Primarily, the appearance reminded taxonomer Peter Jagar of Bowie’s signature glam makeup. These mid-sized spiders are covered in short orange hairs too which of course was one of David’s looks.
But more than this, the singer has released several songs with spiders in their title; what better way to pay homage to his music than to have an arachnid named after him?
6. Spongiforma squarepantsii
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? You probably answered Spongebob Squarepants; but he’s just a fictional character, isn’t he?
While the Bikini Bottom resident may stay firmly on our TV screens, a real life sponge has been named after this kids icon. When I say sponge, the Spongiforma squarepantsii is actually a fungus but it produces spongy fruits, which is how the fungus earned its name.
Found in Malaysia, these fungi were not described until 2011, although they had been mentioned in journals the previous year.
7. Gollumjapyx smeagol
In literature, one of the most memorable fantasy characters of all time was Gollum from Tolkien’s classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. More recently, the character was brought to life in the movies and has remained a fan favorite ever since.
It’s only fitting then that Gollum, a.k.a Smeagol was used as inspiration for a newly discovered species. He lent his name to a type of diplura (a non insect hexapod) which was discovered in the Spanish region of Castellon and is a cave-dwelling creature. Not hard to see where it gets its name.
8. Tibetan Blackbird (Turdus maximus)
The common name of the Tibetan blackbird seems perfectly innocent but its poopy scientific name certainly raises eyebrows. That’s right, it’s called Turdus maximus. How unfortunate!
But this Himalayan bird wasn’t always so called. In fact, it was first described back in 1881 and was called Merula maxima after scientists realized it was more closely related to the blackbird.
9. Prince Charles Stream Tree Frog (Hyloscirtus princecharlesi)
There’s a fairytale legend that says a frog may turn into a prince when he is kissed by a princess. While that wasn’t the case here, this species of frog has certainly gotten itself a regal title.
Discovered in 2008 in the forests of Ecuador, the Hyloscirtus princecharlesi is an endangered frog with beautiful spotted markings.
It took its name from the now-British monarch in tribute to the charity efforts the royal had put into the area where the frog was found.
10. Wunderpus Octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus)
Having only been discovered in the 1980s and described in 2006, the Wunderpus is one of the world’s newer discoveries. This octopus species is found around Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, and The Philippines and is a popular aquatic pet.
But where does it get its name?
Well, the term wunder comes from the German language and means to marvel or wonder. That is quite fitting then since the Wunderpus photogenicus is able to mimic other animals by changing its colors. What’s more, the second part of its name comes from its importance in undersea photography, especially around Indonesia.
11. Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi
Next up, I’d like you to meet a species of spider named after rocker, Neil Young. A type of trapdoor spider, this species is found in the southern half of the United States, particularly around Alabama and Florida.
Named by Jason Bond from East Carolina University, the spider can be distinguished from other species by its genitals. But that’s not how it got its name; thank goodness! No, it earned its Neil Young title based on the fact that Bond was partial to his music and wanted to pay tribute to the musician.
12. Darth Vader Begonia (Begonia darthvaderiana)
Found on the island of Borneo, the Begonia darthvaderiana is named after one of the most well-recognized villains in cinematic history.
The plant was only discovered in 2014 and was primarily named because of the dark coloration of its leaves which are almost black.
13. Rufous-Collared Monarch (Arses insularis)
The Arses insularis is a stunning species of bird found in New Guinea and Yapan and while its range is compact, it’s a species of least concern.
With a beautiful orange collar of fluffy feathers, some argue that the bird is actually a type of frilled monarch. Nonetheless, it retains its rather rude scientific name of Arses insularis. Oh bum!
14. Barack Obama Trapdoor Spider (Aptostichus barackobamai)
If there’s anyone in recent history that has had a positive impact on the world, it’s Barack Obama. The former US President certainly made an impact during his term and it’s only right that he would have an animal named in his honor.
The animal that shares Obama’s name is a type of trapdoor spider endemic to California. It was found in 2012 along with 33 other species; what a discovery!
Along with several other celebrities, Barack Obama’s name was chosen because he is allegedly a huge fan of the Spiderman movies.
15. Neopalpa donaldtrumpi
From one former American president to another, although this one seems to divide opinion, we have our final animal and it’s named after none other than Donald Trump!
When you look at the Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, a type of moth, it isn’t difficult to see why it was given this moniker. This moth, discovered in 2017, has a golden ‘head of hair’ that looks just like that of the controversial businessman and politician.
I have to admit that I let out an incredible laugh when I first laid eyes on the Neopalpa donaldtrumpi because I’ve never seen a more aptly named creature in my life! Credit to the taxonomer, Vazrick Nazari, that named it.