On last week’s episode of The Savage Line, animal guard Cory Valdes stumbled upon a fer-de-lance, a vicious snake whose name in French, roughly translated, means “lance head.” But while most know the snake as such, it has another, slightly less memorable name: Bothrops lanceolatus. Why does a snake with such an interesting, aggressive name need a longer name in a language that no one speaks anymore?
Here’s a scenario to consider. You wake up, walk outside, and blocking your path is a bear. Don’t worry, you’re safe: in this fictional scenario, the bear is totally calm. You’re good. To make things even better, in this scenario, you’re also a scientist who happens to study bears, and quickly realize that this bear is a member of a completely new subspecies of bear; despite its size and place at the top of the food chain, the bear has never been discovered before! You quickly get to work on your study of the bear, but realize at the conclusion that you’ve forgotten to do something very important: name the thing!
But before you go naming your newly discovered sub species the “Bruce-asaurs-rex” or the “Kayla-bear,” you may want to take a step back: naming species is enormously complicated and formal. Indeed, how a species is named is the result of a complex and formal scientific process that is both tedious and fascinating.
Species naming still derives much of its foundational structure from taxonomist Carl Linneaus’s binomial nomenclature. It replaced a system called polynomial nomenclature which attempted to name the animal based off of a description of that animal. This presented obvious problems, as species names like (translated from latin) “the buttercup with reflexed sepals, curved flower stalks, erect stem, and compound leaves” were understandably deemed to be too cumbersome. Linneaus’s binomial nomenclature introduced a two-name system which included a genus or family name and a specific epithet. The genus usually describes the genealogical root of the species, as in where each subspecies derives from. So unless you’ve discovered an entirely new genera, you’re probably stuck with whatever name the genus is.
Binomial nomenclature is the foundation upon which biology can be discussed and codified, the universal name for each organism creating a global language that scientists worldwide can speak. This helps eliminate regional and linguistic confusions.
So, back to the bear: you’ve found a new species, but there’s a bit of work to do before you can get creative. First, you’ll need to confirm that the organism that you’ve found is actually a new species, digging through historical records, examining DNA, talking to other experts. Then, you’ll designate the organism’s holotype, which will point out unique features that distinguish it from other species. Designating a holotype also includes getting a preserved species, so you may want to see if you can find another, less living form of the species you’ve just discovered. You’ll take down the location and date of where the species was found (your front yard, today).
After writing your description, you’ll consult the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, a governing body which helps designate proper latin descriptors for species.
Once all of this is done, then you have a little bit of room for creativity. There’s a long tradition of taxonomists and scientists naming organisms after themselves, something you could very well do. According to scientists at the University of Wisconsin La Cosse, a species name can also be followed by a single letter abbreviation of the person who discovered the organism. So if your panda bear species is named Ailuropoda american J., it’ll be obvious to the taxonomic community that you, Mike Johnson, named the American giant panda.
But species naming also leaves room for fan worship, and even a bit of payback. Linnaeus insulted a rival by naming an invasive weed after him. In 2005, a professor studying beetles got political and named a group of slime mold-eating beetles after members of the Bush administration, including Agathidium bushi, Agathidium rumsfeldi and Agathidium cheneyi. If payback or politics is your passion, this is a perfect model for your naming.
This is a somewhat paired-down version of species naming, as a new species identification will also spark an accompanying need for classification. That’s a lesson for another time. For now, enjoy your species discovery – you have now been immortalized forever in bear-name form!
Don’t forget to catch “The Savage Line” tonight at 10p!