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Having a name for something allows us to talk about it – but everyday names for animals can be imprecise, and vary between people and languages. This problem was solved in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, a practical Swedish biologist.
Linnaeus gave each species a two-word name made up of a genus name and a specific name, e.g. Homo sapiens for modern humans. The method soon caught on and is still used by scientists today.
Linnaeus’ system is now governed by a set of rules produced by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. The rules ensure that the same scientific name can be used for the same animal by all scientists across the world. This means scientists can confidently and precisely communicate with each other about animals.
New species are described in a particular way, published in a scientific paper, with a description and illustrations. ‘Type’ specimens are designated by the scientist; these are the key specimens for that species, which other scientists refer to.
Names of species can be descriptive: e.g. Elephas maximus for the Asian elephant; or describe where the animal comes from e.g. Alces americanus for the Moose; or commemorate a significant person e.g. the fossil plesiosaur Attenborosaurus conybeari, named after David Attenborough.
Problems can be resolved, e.g. if one species is described twice by mistake, usually the first name published is valid and the other is disregarded. Similarly if two species have the same name, the species with the older name keeps the name and the other is renamed.
Zoological names are written in a standard way so they can be easily recognised.
Don’t publish names which haven’t appeared in scientific literature as this creates confusion.
Names for mythological (non-existent) creatures, e.g. the Loch Ness Monster, are not valid, and should not be used as scientific names.
To find out about recently described new species, look at the publication in which the scientist(s) first formally described them, and speak to the scientist themselves - contact details are usually given in these publications.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature supports science writers and editors who use zoological names. Enquiries & FAQs can be found at: http://iczn.org/.
|A malaria-causing parasite||Plasmodium falciparum|
|African Bush elephant||Loxodonta africana|
|Asian elephant||Elephas maximus|
|Bald eagle||Haliaeetus leucocephalus|
|Blue whale||Balaenoptera musculus|
|Colossal squid||Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni|
|Domestic cat||Felis catus|
|Domestic dog||Canis lupus familiaris (a subspecies of the wolf - Canis lupus)|
|Drugstore beetle||Stegobium paniceum|
|Edible (or Roman) snail||Helix pomatia|
|Giant panda||Ailuropoda melanoleuca|
|Great white shark||Carcharodon carcharias|
|Honey bee||Apis mellifera|
|House sparrow||Passer domesticus|
|Mediterranean fruitfly (Medfly)||Ceratitis capitata|
|Monarch butterfly||Danaus plexippus|
|Yellow fever mosquito||Aedes aegypti|
|Zebra finch||Taeniopygia guttata|
ICZN is supported by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore (Company Registration No. 200604346E).
ICZN is an Associate Participant to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) & a Scientific Member of the International Union of Biological Science (IUBS).
Correspondence to the ICZN should be directed to the Secretary (email@example.com / +65 6518 8364).