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What's In An Animal's Scientific Name?

Is that a basswood tree or a linden tree? A coot or a mud duck? A crawdaddy or a crayfish? All are correct names for the same species. That’s because what you call a species may depend on where you grew up, who taught you and maybe even your job or hobbies.

Do you call this a crayfish or a crawdaddy? (Photo via Shutterstock)

Having multiple names for the same plant or animal is why long ago scientists devised a very specific way of naming species called binomial nomenclature. This way, when scientists speak to each other, there is never confusion about what particular species they are talking about.

Binomial nomenclature means two-named name-calling. “Bi” means “two,” “nomen” means “name” and “clatura” means “calling.” All living things are given a scientific name in this two-name format. Every plant and animal species has a two-word name. The first word is always capitalized, and the second word is not. Both words are written in italics. The names often have root words from Latin and Greek.

(Illustration via Shutterstock)

The first word in a species represents the genus that the living thing belongs to. A genus is the second-smallest division of living things. The second word is the species, the smallest division of living things. For example, Canis is the genus for the group of doglike animals, including domestic dogs, coyotes and wolves. The scientific name for the domestic dogs we have as pets is Canis familiaris. The scientific name for coyotes is Canis latrans, while the scientific name for wolves is Canis lupis.

Learning scientific names can seem difficult, but don’t let all those syllables scare you. Don’t worry about pronunciation either. Sound it out and have fun with it. We already use some scientific names as common names, and they are fun to say! Who doesn’t enjoy saying hippopotamus? Its scientific name is Hippopotamus amphibious. It translates like this: “hippo” means “horse,” “potamus” means “river,amphi” means “both” and “bius” (bios) means “life.” So a hippopotamus is a river horse living on land and in water.

How are names chosen? The person who discovers the new species gets to decide its name. Some can be very descriptive, like the examples above. You can even start learning connections and relationships to other words you know from these scientific names. Did you notice familiar words in the scientific name for dog: Canis familiaris? Canis is named after those sharp pointy teeth, canines. (We have them too.) Familiaris is a word for household, like where your family lives.

Names may also recognize the place the animal was first discovered, the person who discovered it or an admired famous person. For example, in 2016, a newly discovered praying mantis was named Ilomantis ginsburgae. It was named after late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died September 2020. Scientists said they chose this name for two reasons. First, the mantis has a neck plate that resembles the collars Ginsburg was known for wearing. Second, she fought her whole career for women’s rights, and this mantis discovery was the first time scientists used the female to identify it as a new species.

So don’t fear the unusual and sometimes long scientific names for living things. Start learning them little by little and make connections with the meaning of words and the amazing living things that inhabit our world. We are, after all, Homo sapiens, and “homo” means “human” and “sapien” means “wise.” That means we are “wise humans!”


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