I first heard about Latin when I was studying French in school, it was introduced to me as a dead language that no one speaks anymore but is the basis for many modern day languages. It’s one of the reasons why French, Spanish and Italian can sound similar. Yet when I started on my rather long quest to become a biologist I had to get my head around using Latin on a pretty regular basis. This is because all described organisms (that is all the organisms we know exist on this earth) have a scientific name which is in Latin.
How do scientific names work?
Scientific names are created using binomial nomenclature (that’s the posh way of saying the two word species name). It made up by genus name which is sort of like a family name and then the species name. The genus name starts with a capital letter and the whole name is normally italicized or underlined if being handwritten.
But why do we have scientific names?
Most species go under common names like the Badger which has a scientific name of Meles meles. However, lot’s of species have many common names. The book I’m currently reading stated perfectly that species with many common names are either really useful or deadly.
However, when a species has many names it can be confusing. I could be talking about Bison grass and you could be talking about sweet grass or peace grass and we could all be thinking we’re talking about different species when actually they are all one species. This is where scientific names come in. If we all instead referred to the grass by it’s scientific or Latin name Hierochloe odorata we would know that it’s all the same species.
By using scientific names in scientific reports, websites and texts it avoids confusion!
But why Latin?
Latin used to be used by academics across the world. In years gone by only the academics in every discipline that had mastered Latin were considered to be good enough. So when Linnaeus (the father of the modern day naming system) came up with the system it was a natural choice. Latin also is not spoken by anyone and therefore won’t be changing or adapting anytime soon. Therefore the Latin names mean the same thing three hundred years on.
Notable Scientific Names
Lots of species have been described and then named after famous people in the recent past. There aren’t many rules when it comes to naming a new species that you’ve found, just as long as you stick with the family name (if your species has a family it belongs to) and that you don’t name it after yourself (that’s just tacky). So as teams of people have been describing new species that have been discovered you’re bound to end up with some slightly interesting scientific names. Here are four of my favorites:
Hieracium attenboroughianum – A lovely daisy named after of course Sir David Attenborough.
Begonia darthvaderiana – Just a subtle Star Wars reference for this dark plant.
Photo by jamessim18
Neopalpa donaldtrumpi – A beautiful moth with a familiar hair do!
Scaptia beyonceae – a rare horse fly named after a queen B
Let me know your favourite scientific names in the comments or in a cheeky tweet!