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How species get their names

Craig Allen (Web Officer)
Published 30 Aug 2019 by Craig Allen (Web Officer)
Did you know there’s a snail in northern Queensland called Crikey steveirwini?

Species names can be inspired by any number of things, from the inspiring to the absurd and everything in between. But there are some rules.  

While many species are known by multiple common names, taxonomists give each a unique scientific name using binomial nomenclature (a two-word naming system). The system was introduced formally by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the late 18th century.

For example, humans belong to the species Homo sapiens. The first of the two names identifies the genus (a group of related species) and the two names together are unique to the species.

Scientific names are chosen by the taxonomist who formally describes the species for the first time in the scientific literature.

The names follow Latin grammatical rules (and so are often called ‘latin names’) but can be derived from words in any language.

Often the names just use descriptive latin words. But they can be derived from an indigenous word for or describing a species, from place names, be named after famous people or fictional characters, be whimsical, or anything else that the taxonomist chooses.

Here are some species that are named after scientists or other people of note.

Jump into the comments with examples of your own!

  • The genus Banksia is named after the Joseph Banks, the lead naturalist on James Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage on the Endeavour. His team collected 30,000 plant specimens in South America, New Zealand, Australia, Java and elsewhere. This resulted in the description of 110 new genera and 1300 new species.
  • Zaglossus attenboroughi (Sir David's long-beaked echidna) is of course named after Sir David Attenborough. It’s a large, endangered species of Echidna living in the rainforests of northern New Guinea. A related species, Zaglossus hacketti was the largest of all echidnas and is depicted in Aboriginal rock art.
  • Erythrura gouldiae (Gouldian Finch) was named after Elizabeth Gould. Elizabeth was the wife of ornithologist and artist John Gould. John is famous for publishing beautiful paintings of Australian birds and animals in the late 19th century. However, most of the paintings credited to John were in fact painted by Elizabeth, based on his drawings.
  • The delightfully named Underwoodisaurus Milli (Thick-tailed or Barking Gecko) is a gecko found across central and Southern Australia. The genus is named after the British herpetologist (reptile scientist) Garth Leon Underwood.
  • Hypseleotris barrawayi (the Katherine River Gudgeon) is named after Sandy Barraway, who is a Traditional Owner of Sleisbeck Country in Kakadu National Park where the fish was discovered.
Other than that one example we struggled to find species names after Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, which is disappointing. Taxonomists, please take note, you really need to fix that!

And there are plenty of names that are humorous. For example, entomologist George Willis Kirkaldy was criticized for frivolity by the London Zoological Society in 1912 for giving these delightful names to a bunch of insect genera: Polychisme, Dolichisme, Florichisme, Marichisme, Nanichisme, Peggichisme, and the extra passionate Ochisme.

The Crikey Steveirwini, a snail named for Steve Irwin. The Crikey Steveirwini, a snail named for Steve Irwin.
Image source unknown. Please tell us if you know.
This is the Scarlet Banksia (Banksia coccinea), photographed by Paul Clark near our Monjebup Reserve in Western Australia. This is the Scarlet Banksia (Banksia coccinea), photographed by Paul Clark near our Monjebup Reserve in Western Australia.
The Thick-tailed or Barking Gecko (Underwoodisaurus Milli). The Thick-tailed or Barking Gecko (Underwoodisaurus Milli).
Photo by by David Paul, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
The Gouldian Finch (Erythrura gouldiae). The Gouldian Finch (Erythrura gouldiae).
Photo by R A Kilmer CC
Zaglossus attenboroughi (Sir David's long-beaked echidna). Zaglossus attenboroughi (Sir David's long-beaked echidna).
Photo: Flannery & Groves, 1998
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