Thursday, August 25, 2016

Name this creature: How to scientifically name a species

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-05/how-to-scientifically-name-species/7681634

Photo: Scientific names prevent confusion among taxonomists (Ann Jones)

Putting a name on a new species is one of the most exciting parts of taxonomic research, but also one of the most important because — unlike common names — a scientific name is unique to one species. But how are they decided?

What are the rules?

Let's say that an Australian bird scientist — an ornithologist — is talking with a researcher in Europe about magpies.
But which magpies are they talking about: the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen) or the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica)?
By using the scientific name, two scientists on opposite sides of the world can know for a fact that they're talking about the same species.
But naming a new species comes with some big challenges. There are about 8.6 million species in the world and we've only named 1.2 million of them.
That's a lot of creatures and a lot of names to keep track of, so we need some rules of thumb.

Photo: Other than convention, there's no requirement for scientific names to be in Latin (Wikimedia Commons)

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature dictates how new animal species are named, but their guide is an 18-chapter doorstop.
Here's a much shorter, step-by-step guide to naming this creature.
There are some rules you must follow when naming a new species:
  • The name must be unique. The combination of genus name and species name cannot have been used for any other animal. You're naming a new species of the genus Moridilla, so once you've come up with an idea for a species name try googling it: Moridilla X. If it's entirely new then you're good to go.
  • The name can't be rude. The ICZN states that no name should give offence on any grounds. Historically, some scientists waged war on each other this way, but that's no excuse so just play nice.
  • You can't name the species after yourself. Nobody — and I mean nobody — names a species after themselves. It's tacky!

Where do I find my inspiration?

Great species names tell you something about the creature itself, so get creative.
You can draw on any feature of the species, such as its appearance, behaviour, habitat or geographic location.
Taxonomists draw on all kinds of inspiration when naming new species, for example:
  • Five species of fungus beetle — a beastie that is small and round — were named Gelae baen (sounding like "jelly bean"), Gelae balae ("jelly belly"), Gelae donut ("jelly doughnut"), Gelae fish ("jelly fish"), and Gelae rol ("jelly roll").
  • The spider Aphonopelma johnnycashi was named after Johnny Cash because the the 'species can be found near the area of Folsom Prison in California, and like Cash's distinctive style of dress ... mature males of this species are generally black in colour.'
  • A new genus of sea snail was called Ittibittium, because it is smaller than sea snails from the genus T. Bittium.
  • A giant fossil turtle was named Ninjemys oweni, Owen's Ninja Turtle, with the authors explaining that the name was from "ninja, in allusion to that totally rad, fearsome foursome epitomising shelled success" and "emys" from the Latin for turtle.

Does the name have to be in Latin?

Scientific names are written in Latin because historically this was the language of science.
However, you don't have to worry about this part. We have experts on hand to translate your name into its correct Latin form.
Naming a species is both an incredible honour and an enormous responsibility.
A species name has the potential to last as long as the species itself, and perhaps even longer. With posterity in mind, go name a nudibranch!

Dr Amber Beavis is a senior research officer at The Office of the Chief Scientist, and formerly a taxonomist at the Western Australian Museum specialising in arachnology.