Species names

05 June, 2011

Natural Sciences Collection Specimens: Wild- amazing animals in a changing world.
Natural Sciences Collection Specimens: Wild- amazing animals in a changing world.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: How do animals get their species name?

Answer: The process of naming animals is complex – many people think that if they discover something they’ve never seen they have the right to give it a name, but there is a great deal more to it than this. In order to name a species, there are strict ‘rules’, and a very detailed ‘rule book’. With animals, the ‘rules’ are set out in The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (or ICZN for short), which sets out the ‘Principles of Binomial Nomenclature’; in other words how to devise  a two-part scientific name which describes a genus (e.g. Homo) and species (e.g. sapiens). There is a corresponding ‘rule book’ for plants called the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN).

These rule books are detailed, complex documents, but they need to be – they set out the ‘laws’ of naming and classifying life scientifically. The usage of  common names, like “Rat” or “Sparrow” can vary from place to place and aren’t part of the code, but the ICZN sets out the rules for scientific names (like Rattus rattus for a “Rat” or Passer domesticus for a “Sparrow”). Unlike common names, scientific names stay the same no matter where you are or what language is spoken.

So next time you see an odd scientific name like Arses kaupi or Bugeranus carunculatus, although they sound odd or rude, these are valid scientific names that adhere to the ICZN.

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