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Old 6th November 2009   #1 (permalink)
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Default Scientific Nomenclature

Scientific nomenclature:

Anyone who is into the hobby of keeping animals is bound to encounter scientific names sooner or later. For most people itīs something new that they donīt understand, or may even avoid, using common names instead.
Common names, however, are not reliable. They tend to be quite general, and the animal they refer to may change greatly depending on location. Therefore itīs complicated to establish which kind of animal exactly one is talking about. For example, the very common term "firebelly newt" which is widely used, usually refers to a japanese species. The problem is that it is also used for many other species, including several from Asia and Europe. Up to 4 different genera, containing various species can be referred to by the term "firebelly". As you can see, itīs quite inefficient.

Itīs the science that studies the classification of organisms. Itīs based on several ranks (from more general to more specific), as follows:

Domain-------------------------------Eukarya (eukaryotes)
Kingdom------------------------------Animalia (animals)
Phylum-------------------------------Chordata (vertebrates)
Class---------------------------------Mammalia (mammals)
Family--------------------------------Hominidae (hominids)
Genus -------------------------------Homo
Species------------------------------Homo sapiens
Subspecies ------------------------------Homo sapiens sapiens

For the purpose of this note, only the genus, species and subspecies ranks are of value.

Taxonomy and classification infer evolutionary relationships - they are built following the structure of the 'tree of life', where each taxonomic level, going from species to domain, represents a more major division in the tree's branches and therefore a deeper degree of evolutionary relatedness. All the individuals of Salamandra salamandra fastuosa are more related to one another than they are to individuals of other subspecies of S. salamandra, but all the individuals of S. salamandra, irrespective of subspecies, are more related to one another than they are to other species of Salamandra. This system continues all the way up, through the family Salamandridae, the Order Caudata, the Subclass Lissamphibia, the Class Amphibia, the Sub-phyllum Vertebrata, the Phyllum Chordata, the Kingdom Animalia and the Domain Eukarya. Taxonomy is an expression of phylogeny, as well as a useful cataloguing system, and so isn't just a different, arbitrary naming system, but a tool in understanding the evolutionary structure of life. This all sounds academic and irrelevant to the salamander and newt hobby, but knowing the taxonomy of a group of newts can give clues as to geographic range, captive requirements and breeding stimuli.

Scientific names basics:

A scientific name, also called a binomial, is composed of two words and designates a species. The first word, is the genus (generic name), and it always starts with a capital letter. The second word, the specific name, is never capitalized and must follow the genus.
An example:

Chinese firebelly newt = Cynops orientalis

Sometimes a third word is added to the binomial, the subspecific name, which in Zoology is also never capitalized and follows the scientific name as in Ichthyosaura alpestris apuanus (italian alpine newt). This third word designates a particular "tribe" inside the species, which has some characteristics that differenciates it from other populations (technically it must be a geographically isolated population).

Ideally, scientific names should be typed in italics (or underlined when hand written) to make it clear that itīs not a common word; however this is usually ignored around the internet.
It is important, though, to try and use the correct capitalization, as itīs necessary to establish if a given word is either a generic name or a specific name. Spelling is also important so that everyone can understand exactly what you are talking about.
While a scientific name should also be written in full, itīs very common outside the scientific community ( and, occasionally, inside it too) to find the generic name being abbreviated to the first letter as in C. orientalis. Note that in this case, when the genus is abreviated, the two words are then separated by a "dot", and the genus is still capitalized.
If a subespecies is mentioned, then the binomial name can be abbreviated to the initial letters as in S.s.salamandra. As always, the genus is capitalized, the specific name is not and neither is the subspecific name.

When the species is not known, or does not need to be specified, the generic name for one species is followed by the abbreviation "sp" as in Notophthalmus sp. If several species of a particular genus are being referred to, the plural form is "spp.".
Neither abbrevation needs to be italicised or underlined.
Additionally, the use of the abbreviation "ssp" refers to an unspecified subspecies. The plural is "sspp" (several subspecies).

In a scientific article or a more scientifically oriented text, you may sometimes encounter the abbreviation "cf" between the two parts of the binomial (Ex: Plethodon cf. glutinosus). This abbreviation, which incidentally isnīt italicised either, means that the species is not confirmed.

Meaning of scientific names:

Itīs interesting to note that many scientific names contain a short description of the actual species it names. A very good example is Cynops pyrrhogaster where the specific name "pyrrhogaster" is a compound of Greek words that literally means "Firebelly" (pyrrhos=fire ; gaster=stomach, belly).
Many scientific names refer to a particular feature of the animal or its origin.
The generic name rarely contains this kind of "information"...itīs most commonly found in the specific name.

Scientific names have a series of advantages when compared to common names. For starters the same name can be used all over the world, since itīs the same in every language. Itīs also very specific, and two species canīt be confused since they have different scientific names. It also allows to see instant relations between species. For example it shows that Cynops cyanurus and Cynops orientalis are closely related, but are not closely related to Paramesotriton hongkongensis--despite all being firebellies. As mentioned earlier, this also applies to higher taxonomic ranks, so you can also establish that Cynops and Paramesotriton are both genera in the Salamandridae family, and are therefore much more closely related between them than, say, the genus Ambystoma which is part of a different family-- Ambystomatidae.
Using the binomial name also allows access to a wealth of scientific literature and research that can be useful in keeping animals, and to the legislature that may dictate the legality of collection and possession.
The only drawback is that taxonomy, and therefore scientific names are subject to change(as with anything else in the constantly evolving field of science), so some names may become obsolete, or some species may change genus, subspecies may be upgraded to species, etc. For the most part, however, itīs pretty stable.
Bottom may take some time to get used to scientific nomenclature but itīs a far better system than common names, so donīt be afraid of using it!

For a complete list of caudate species and their scientific names you can refer to Caudata Culture Species
Please become acquainted with the forum rules.

Useful Links: Caudata Culture | Species Accounts | Care Articles | Newt and Salamander FAQs | | Axolotl FAQs | Forum Functions.

Non Timetis Messor.

Last edited by Azhael; 16th July 2010 at 14:18. Reason: suborder -> subclass
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