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Living Lightly column

The secrets behind scientific names

By Jonathon Howard

Scientists don’t all wear white lab coats and have thick glasses like Professor Frink on the Simpsons.

We have personalities, honour and respect our colleagues, and have a sense of humour like everyone else. If you don’t believe me – let’s look at how scientists name different plants and animals.

Scientific names have to follow a specific set of rules. Scientists use a two-name system called a binomial naming system. So a scientist calls humans: Homo sapiens.

In choosing a scientific name, the rules state scientists can use ancient Greek or Latin, the names of important people or important places, or make a compound word using a mixture of techniques.

In some cases the common name is the scientific name. So the scientific name for a Boa constrictor is: Boa constrictor. The scientific name for Tyrannosaurus rex is: Tyrannosaurus rex.  In some cases the scientific name is creeping into everyday usage. We increasingly talk of grevilleas rather than spider flowers and orcas rather than killer whales.

In terms of using ancient languages, ‘maculata’ means spotted. Thus the name of the spotted tailed quoll is: Dasyurus maculata; the spotted gum:  Corymbia maculata; and the black-spotted parrotfish: Austrolabrus maculatus.

Names of people (often naturalists) can also be used. There are more than 200 species of plants named after Sir Joseph Banks. ‘Banksias’ as we know them have become a popular garden plant.

I think there is also a sense of beauty in few scientific names. For example ‘platy’ generally means broad or flat. So Platycercus elgans is the most elegant of flat-tailed parrots: the crimson rosella. Acrobates pygmaeus refers to the ‘pygmy acrobat’ of the bush: the feathertail glider.

An example of the clever use of a combination of ancient words is: Hydromys chrysogaster. Hydro meaning water; mys meaning mouse, chryogaster meaning yellow bellied.  We know this animal as the water rat.

I would like to end with an example of a name that shows scientist have a sense of humour.

A great example is: Strigiphilus garylarsoni: a species of chewing lice that eats the skin and feathers off the surface of African owls. It was named after Gary Larson, creator of the syndicated cartoon The Far Side. In a letter to Larson, the president of scientific panel wrote that it was “for the enormous contribution that my colleagues and I feel your cartoons make to biology”.