What’s in a name?

March 28th, 2016
By Allen,Sarah E

Archeologist and fellow blogger, Smiti Nathan Staudt (her blog here) asked how paleontologists name new species.  It is a bit more complicated than one might think!  Carolus Linnaeus founded the fields of taxonomy and nomenclature in the 1700s.  Taxonomy or classification is the process of defining groups composed of organisms that share similar traits.  Nomenclature is the field of naming a new taxon or species.  Both taxonomy and nomenclature form the field of systematics.

Four separate codes provide rules and recommendations for naming the organisms on earth. There are separate codes for animals, bacteria, and cultivated plants.  However, the code that applies in paleobotany is the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants (ICN).  Code_coverThe codes help provide a stable way to name taxa in order to ensure that there is only one name per taxon and that the name reflects a taxon’s accurate classification.  The names are always binomials (two names) in Latin.  Common names are not universal and are often ambiguous.  It is possible for the same organism to have dozens of common names in different languages, alphabets, or in different geographic regions.  Furthermore, common names can be misleading about an organism’s nearest “relative” (e.g., Spanish moss is not a moss at all; it is an angiosperm in the same family as pineapples!).

So how does one create a scientific name?  In paleontology, the organism often represents a new species.  Sometimes a new species does not fit in any modern or previously created genera, so a new genus must be created.  Genera are singular nouns, in the nominative case, with a capitalized first letter, written in italics.  A species name is always a binomial composed of the genus and the specific epithet. In the ICN code, the specific epithet can be an adjective that agrees in gender with the genus, a noun in apposition, or a noun in the genitive case.  The specific epithet is written in lowercase, also in italics, directly after the genus. The epithet may be arbitrarily composed as long as it is in Latin.  It can honor a person, indicate the country or locality in which the organism was found, or be a relevant descriptive adjective.  In the botanical code, the specific epithet cannot be the same as the genus (this is acceptable under the zoological code).  There are additional recommendations in the code, one of which is to avoid specific epithets that are long and difficult to pronounce.  While I have only mentioned a few rules about naming a new genus or species, the code regulates names at all taxonomic ranks.  All the rules in the ICN can be found here.

Code_insideOnce you have decided on a name following the rules of the ICN, the new species has to be effectively and validly published to be considered legitimate.  First, it must be in a printed or pdf formatted journal or book with an ISSN or ISBN number.  Furthermore, the name can only be composed of letters of the Latin alphabet with proper grammatical formatting.  A description or diagnosis is required as is the designation of a type specimen.  A type specimen is a name bearing specimen, one that links the name to the taxon.  If you are naming a new fossil species, an illustration or figure is required (this is not true for modern plants, but is recommended).  There were less restrictive rules in the past, so many names have been “grandfathered” in.  Finally, when needed, the codes also govern name changes.

Information compiled from materials from the course “Biological Nomenclature” taught in Spring 2011 at UF by Drs. Nico Cellinese, Walter Judd, and Norris Williams and directly from the ICN.

Helpful Resources

Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn

Melborne Code

Specific Examples

How have the names for the new species I have worked on been determined?  Here is the entomology for a few examples:

All these species were assigned to either a fossil or modern genus that had already been established.  More information and photos of some of these taxa can be found in blog posts from June and July of 2015.

Phoenix windmillis: This flower had a field name of Windmill as the petals are oriented just like the blades of a modern wind turbine.  I Latinized this word to create the specific epithet.  Phoenix is a modern genus commonly known as the date palms.

Icacinicaryites lottii: The specimens of this fruit were found by FLMNH paleobotany research assistant and lab manager Terry Lott in the summer of 2013.  We honored his find and named the species after him. Icacinicaryites is a fossil genus used for Icacinaceae fossils that do not align with a modern genus.

Iodes occidentalis: Occidentalis translates to “western” in Latin.  This seemed appropriate as the species is found in the fossil record of the western hemisphere, but the other (living) members of the genus are distributed in Africa and Asia today.

Goweria bluerimensis: These leaves were documented from the Blue Rim escarpment in the Bridger Formation of southwestern Wyoming, so the specific epithet acknowledges the locality.  The genus Goweria is used for fossil leaves assigned to Icacinaceae that have an uncertain placement within the family.

Final Note

Remember: One can never just use a specific epithet to refer to a species.  The full binomial with the genus name is the only correct way to refer to a species.

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