Many of you eagle eyed readers may have noticed that with plant and animal species there is a common name and a scientific name. For example, the Red Fox, has the common name, ‘Red Fox’ as well as the scientific name ‘Vulpes vulpes’. But why is this?
Every recognised species on Earth (at least in theory) is given a double barreled scientific name, that is specific to that species, whereas common names can vary from country to country and even by region within a country. This scientific naming system is called ‘binomial nomenclature’. These names are important because they allow people throughout the world to communicate about animal species with less confusion.
This works because there are sets of international rules about how to name animals and zoologists try to avoid naming the same thing more than once, though this does sometimes happen. These naming rules mean that every scientific name is unique. For example, if Chimpanzees are given the scientific name Pan troglodytes, no other animal species can be given the same name. So, if you are a South African scientist studying the behaviour of Chimpanzees and you want to discuss Chimpanzee behaviour with an Indian researcher, you can both use the scientific name and know exactly what species the other is talking about. While in Poland tracking animals, I found this very useful, my polish being rather limited to say the least, I found I was about to indicate the species tracks I had found by scientific name, for example Meles meles to indicate Badger tracks.
Scientific names not only aid in communication but are often descriptive also, suggesting something about the animal. They may relate to the individual scientist that was instrumental in discovering them, or relate to the native language of where they are found, or to the regions where the species is found, they also may relate to some physical or behavioral trait of the species. Scientific names are also designed to tell you something about the animal’s relationships with other animals. The scientific name of each species is made up of a generic name (generic epithet) and a specific name (specific epithet). Let’s take us Homo sapiens as an example, the generic epithet is Homo and the specific epithet is sapiens. The generic epithet is the name of the genus (singular of genera) to which we belong, the genus Homo. Some genera contain only one species but most genera are made up of many species. The genus is the first level of taxonomic organisation, in a way, because all species that are thought to be most closely related, are placed together in a genus.
Taxonomy, the science and process of naming living organisms, is a field that is constantly changing. When our scientific understanding of animal species and their relationships changes, it may mean that scientific names change as well. The invention of DNA matching technology has meant that many species relationships to each other have been seen to be vastly different than expected.