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Have you ever wondered why every animal and plant has its own scientific name? These names are usually long, Latin-sounding, and often bear no similarity to the corresponding common name. They can make trips to the zoo somewhat perplexing!
However, there are very good reasons for using them, says Associate Professor Peter Beech of Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences. ‘Common names themselves can lead to confusion,’ he explains.
‘The mountain ash of Victoria is Eucalyptus regnans, but what is known as the mountain ash in the UK is Sorbus aucuparia, and in North America, Sorbus americana. The Australian silky oak, Grevillea robusta, is not a true oak at all; if it were, it would be in the genus, Quercus.’
He adds: ‘Latin names thus also allow us, experts or not, to recognise surprisingly close relatives by their names. For example, the 30-metre silky oak is in the same genus and thus closely related to the now rare, Victorian endemic, Grevillea repens, a ground-hugging shrub that grows no more than three metres wide.’
The classification system in use today has its roots in the 18th century, when scientists realised the necessity for a common language that identified species without the use of long descriptors that could be prone to subjectivity. What we now have is an international convention to identify every recognised species on the planet (including bacteria, fungi, algae and even viruses).
Usually scientific names are made up of two parts – the genus name, followed by the species name (e.g. Homo sapiens for humans). This ‘binomial nomenclature’ (two-part naming convention) was invented by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1750s.
Species is the most specific of the descriptors in taxonomy (the classification of organisms), and is defined as a group of organisms that can breed with each other to produce fertile offspring. For example, lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris) are members of different species within the same genus (Panthera). Because they’re not the same species, if they breed with each other, the liger they produce will not be fertile.
When a scientist discovers a new species of animal or plant, they are allowed the honour of naming it – however they must follow scientific convention. When Cuong Huynh, from Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, discovered two new species of millipede, he couldn’t call them ‘Huynh millipedes’. Instead they were named Phryssonotus australis and Phryssonotus occidentalis, after the Victorian and Western Australian regions in which they were found.
The beauty of the scientific classification system is people throughout the world can communicate unambiguously about both plants and animals – with precision – as no creature has the same name as another. The only issue is they’re often not the easiest words to remember or pronounce!
Assoc. Prof. Beech shares two of his favourite quirky scientific naming facts:
Schwarzenegger or DeVito?
‘The genus, Daviesia, is an Australian native pea shrub, or egg and bacon plant (yep, the flowers are red and orange). Two of its species are Daviesia schwarzenegger and Daviesia devito: similar looking shrubs but one is bigger than the other.’
‘Pseudo-nitzschia pseudodelicatissima is a tiny, needle-like, marine alga that is very pseudo and anything but delicate – to us at least. It makes the neurotoxin domoic acid which, when accumulated by shell fish that we end up eating, can make us bite our tongues and lips off with no pain and no memory of our seafood meal. But don’t worry, since that happened in Canada in the 80s, we now know to look out for this otherwise very beautiful diatom.’
So how well do you know your plants and animals? Try our quiz and see how many scientific names you know.
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