Have you ever wondered how animals are named and categorized? Names like Puma concolor, Amblycastor fluminis, and Aluterus scriptus may seem arbitrary at first glance, but they are very deliberate, and a new collaborative publication between a Colgate emeritus professor and his former student helps explain how this naming is done.
For those without a background in Latin, naming classification systems can become confusing. In order to simplify this practice, Jann E. Vendetti, PhD, and her former professor, Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics Emeritus Robert Garland, created 10 strategies to refer to when naming species. These strategies, enumerated in their Journal of Natural History article, “Species name formation for zoologists: a pragmatic approach,” adhere to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
It is important to know that there are two components to naming animals: a genus and species. This structure creates a universal system that allows scientists to discuss and document them.
“What started out as a guide for myself turned into a manuscript on how to use Latin to name species,” Vendetti said. “Because I don’t actually know the rules for Latin or how to functionally use it as a language, I needed a co-author and Latin expert to make sure I’d done it correctly and improve the manuscript. I thought that it was fitting to ask Professor Garland because he was the first professor to introduce me to Darwin, and later I became an evolutionary biologist.”
For the first strategy, all that is needed as a species name is a Latin noun (a possessive descriptor) that appropriately describes something that relates to the animal to be named. In this instance, the word being chosen as the species can be singular or plural. The second strategy utilizes Latin verbs that focus on the characteristics of the animal. The verb can be singular or plural. The third strategy uses Latin singular nouns as a species name, to describe the genus. These nouns must relate to an aspect of the animal in some way. Similarly the fourth uses singular, non-Latin nouns to describe the genus. Keep in mind that gender agreement is irrelevant for the previous strategies. In other words, the suffix of the genus and the species do not have to agree.
The fifth strategy allows species to be named after a person or group. Depending on the name, modifications of the word’s suffix are needed in order to adhere to Latin grammatical rules. The following strategy uses singular Latin adjectives that are in agreement with the gender of the genus. The seventh uses singular Latin words that describe actions performed by the animal. The eighth strategy alters the names of places or locations into Latin adjectives. Since the word is altered, it can be in any language as long it is written using the Latin alphabet. Additionally, gender is relevant and must agree with strategies five through eight, and the words selected must have a degree of relevance.
The second to last strategy is more complex since it utilizes compound words that can be in Latin, Greek, or a mixture of both where gender is disregarded. This strategy requires knowledge of several grammatical rules in order to be executed properly. The final strategy allows the author to create a word that can be pronounced and is tailored to the species. Before using this strategy, the other nine should be considered first. By using these ten guidelines, naming new species becomes simpler, and established names are no longer arbitrary.
Garland said, “The article is an example of the fruitful interaction between science and the humanities, while demonstrating as well how professors and students can help each other to grow.”