Scientific Nomenclature

Azhael

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Scientific nomenclature:

Anyone who is into the hobby of keeping animals is bound to encounter scientific names sooner or later. For most people it´s something new that they don´t 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 it´s 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, it´s quite inefficient.

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


Example
Domain-------------------------------Eukarya (eukaryotes)
Kingdom------------------------------Animalia (animals)
Phylum-------------------------------Chordata (vertebrates)
Class---------------------------------Mammalia (mammals)
Order---------------------------------Primates
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 it´s not a common word; however this is usually ignored around the internet.
It is important, though, to try and use the correct capitalization, as it´s 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, it´s 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 isn´t italicised either, means that the species is not confirmed.

Meaning of scientific names:

It´s 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"...it´s 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 it´s the same in every language. It´s also very specific, and two species can´t 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, it´s pretty stable.
Bottom line....it may take some time to get used to scientific nomenclature but it´s a far better system than common names, so don´t be afraid of using it!

For a complete list of caudate species and their scientific names you can refer to Caudata Culture Species
 
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eljorgo

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Agree at 100%. Scientific nomenclature have been much avoided from what I saw. Personally I almost never referred to newts or other living being by their common names using always scientific nomenclature that is much easier and objective to use. After learning you´ll never forget:happy:
 

Azhael

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Personally, i think the problem is not that people avoid scientific nomenclature, but that a lot of people use it incorrectly. This forum is full of very imaginative spellings of scientific names, some are easy mistakes in spelling, others are completely different words, hehe. People tend to capitalize both parts of the binomial too.
Hopefully this note will serve as a learning guide for those who are not familiar with the correct use of this system. After all, it´s not a big deal, even if very badly spelled, we tend to understand each other in this forum, but well, the same way that people come here to learn about husbandry and care, they might as well get a quick lesson on scientific nomenclature.
 

Punkamph

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this is a nice simple explanation.. thank you. I am one who really likes those common names, because i can read and say them...i honestly hate scientific names =( but maybe i will learn to love them with practice. However i dislike that so far people who think of them selves as higher intellectuals on this forum feel the need to only use the scientific nomenclature and not the names the 'generic' public would recognize. there is this inapproachable tone present. I feel if you know the specific nomenclature you should use the common identities as well. This isn't an intelligence contest; however a friendlier way of learning the nomenclature by associations might be more intriguing for people. Then people can learn to recognize and associate both together and not feel that they are being undermined or judged.
 

jaster

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Great post! This is basically what I have done all semester in herpetology :) Things are much easier when names cannot be confused (even though we had a turtle clade with "Geomydidae" which is a mamalian family :rolleyes:). You mentioned the capitalization of genus AND species that some people use and for some reason I feel a cringe when I see that.
 

blueberlin

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Often when writing here I have to translate the names of plants, fish, or snails from the common German name. I am therefore always grateful for the Latin name because it helps me unequivocally identify the thing I mean. One recent example is called the Turmdeckelschnecke (literally, "tower-lid-snail"); Wiki doesn't even offer an English version of the page and the name is applied to a variety of similarly shaped snails. For international communication, Latin names are invaluable.

-Eva
 

Azhael

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Punkamph- I honestly don´t know why you think there is an atmosphere of higher intellectualism....
If some of us choose to use almost exclusively the scientific nomenclature it is because it´s a FAR better system., and it allows us to discuss and identify species inmediately and with no mistakes.
It´s true that the first step is to associate the common name to its binomial, but once you get the hang of it you actually just forget about common names altogether...

This is no scientific magazine, this is a forum for hobbyists, the vast majority of people here have no scientific education, just an inherit love for caudates, but we all use binomials because it just makes sense xD
I´m sorry you find it unnaproachable...i´m sure you´ll get the hang of it soon.

Jaster- I´m studying a turtle in that very same family for one exam next week xD

Blueberlin- you just described why common names are useless. Every language has its own names and they rarely translate exactly the same. I also think it´s rather silly that non-native speakers such as myself, have to learn the english names....specially when i can just learn scientific nomenclature and solve the problem xD
 

aramcheck

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I can understand why using scientific names can be seen as a bit pedantic and even maybe "superior", but like Azhael said, it is the best way to avoid confusion, has many species share common name, and some species do not have a common name (certainly not a common name in all language). It is a very useful and clear system of describing what we are talking about.

Like I said, I can see how people only using scientific names can come accross as a bit superior at first, but for people working in the field, it is second nature. I am a Natural History Museum documentalist, my work would be impossible to do with common names, so I only use scientific names, and seldom even think of organisms through their common names (unless it is common French/European fauna/flora).

HOWEVER taxonomists are funny creatures and love to confuse everyone by changing names regularly, some changes being dictated by obvious scientific reason (elevating a subspecies to species level, spliting species, etc.) following field studies/genetic research/etc. but some name change can appear a bit arbitrary, I give you the Alpine Newt, reclassified from Triturus alpestris to Mesotriton alpestris to Ichthyosaura alpestris in under 2 years! This can be pretty hard to follow for people not keeping their finger on the pulse of taxonomy. I taught myself the scientific names of most of the European herpetofauna from field guides in the late 80s/ealy 90s and by now, most of it is useless :D, very frustrating.

At least the internet is allowing me to catch up now.
 

Azhael

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Oh Aramcheck, i feel your pain.
When i was a kid i used to spend whole afternoons reading through field guides, encyclopaedias, whatever had animal pictures in it. I remember i was at an herpethology congress when i found out about the changes in Triturus...i has to ask one of the herpethologists to draw me a new taxonomic tree with all the new names xD
The case of I.apestris is a good example of how scientific names may change, but it was SO necessary....

I see how all this scientific nomencalture talk may seem smug, but it´s just learning words...which is dead easy, and in no time you get the hang of it and learn to see them just as another name, not as a posh commentary by some wannabe scientist.
 
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bewilderbeast

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Scientific names have a certain lyrical rhythm to them... Like : "Tyrano-saurus-rex". no one forgets that one, or most Dino names for that matter... though, usually, we only know half of it. I always have to break down the pronunciation to remember them and it works to the point where these strings of latin and greek words pop into my head and I don't always remember what animal it goes with them. Like a very short, Latin, song getting stuck in my head. The Latin I took in middle school doesn't hurt either. Knowing some of the meanings of the Latin root words helps give the names a little more meaning.

I think it's important to note, also, that scientific names, especially species and subspecies, are in a state of constant flux, and that, until the middle part of the 20th century, taxonomies WERE just as confusing and muddled as common names... and now again that genetic research is being done that can objectively and measurably differentiate between distinct species.

I have a catalog of herpetelogical specimens of the western United States from the California Academy of Sciences published in 1928 (many of the pages are still uncut) and it has huge lists of species that do not exist in modern taxonomy.

For instance, the genus Taricha, has about 12 different entries few of which have the genus name Taricha and several different spellings of species names depending on the scientist who had cataloged the specimen...
some of the species entries are as follows:
Triton torosus: the type specimen of the species taken by Eschscholtz in 1833
Triton tereticauda
Triton Ermani
Salamandra Beecheyi
Triton granulosa
Notophtalmus torosus
Taricha torosa
Taricha laevis
Diemyctylus torosa

As you can see, even scientists get confused... sorry for the novel...
 

NewtZoo

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I also think using scientific nomenclature is better and should at least be used in conjuction with common names. I always have a problem when shopping around on Kingsnake.com because people use common names for animals that I have found out are a group of animals represented by one common name. Example: Wax Monkey frogs for sale.......but there are like three or four different kinds, so how do I know. Another problem is pet shops. Someone will ask me what i have at home and Ill say "T. granulosa" and they say " I love Fire Belly Newts!"...hugh.....!?!. So it can get hectic.But Im also a scientist and may be biased in my opinion.
 

Salmonella

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Great issue that does need addressing! (Especially for the not quite so educated person as I.)

To quote member comments re this thread:

"People tend to capitalize both parts of the binomial too." - I have done this on MANY occasions - still have to back up and make a "lower case" adjustment.:eek:

"It is a very useful and clear system of describing what we are talking about." Yes. A great advantage - especially when you understand the root word meanings. I sure wish I understood the Latin and Greek languages that would be a boon! :p

"It´s 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)." - See my comment above. :p

"Many scientific names refer to a particular feature of the animal or its origin." - (As stated above) - best aspect of scientific names besides the specie confusion issue.

Thank you all so much. This forum is awesome because of people like you!:happy:
 

Azhael

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Being spanish i have a basic knowledge of latin and greek, despite never ever studying them. I understand that people who speak non-latin derived languages, have a much harder time with scientific nomenclature because it´s just gibberish with no meaning at all.
However i have to agree with bewilderbeast in that binomials have a certain rythm to them. Personally i have a TERRIBLE memory....trully bad...and yet scientific names get stuck in my head very easily, even those with complex spelling. I really think it´s just a matter of getting used to them, and before you know it, you understand them perfectly well.

PS: i´m very very happy that this is helping fellow members :)
 

Kerry1968

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Just to add in my thoughts, I can recognise the names of some newts and salamanders by their scientific names, but there is no way I can remember how to spell them (yet!)

I've just about got my head round Ambystoma mexicanum!

A lot of people on her abbreviate the scientific names too, so I get confused as to what animal they are referring to. In time I guess I'll get to be able to understand and spell the names.

I have some Alpine newts, but I can never remember the full scientific name for them, apuana comes into it somewhere I think!
 
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Azhael

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Actually, it´s Ichthyosaura alpestris apuanus(or apuana depending on wether you want it to be the same gender).

If you think that´s a mouthfull, try Macracanthorhinchus hirudinaceus xD I had to learn that three years ago.
I have a Chordates exam next tuesday and i have to learn exactly 201 latin names xDDDD Luckily i already know more than 60, so that´s something...
I´ve had it worse, though, with some botanical classes, where i had to learn over 300 plant names xD

And the worst part of all, is that i actually like it :D
 

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you're right. I'm a little bit old fashioned. For me it's still Triturus. :eek:
Even scientific names change from time to time
 

Maxorz

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At first, Latin names were quite hard to learn, I would have to read the same name over and over until I could memorize it :p Yet, now it has become more simple. It's as hard as common names now, and they've proven to be extremely useful! The problem is that people around here don't even know the common names of species, you say salamander and they think you are talking about a gecko, which they actually call iguana. Hehe...
 

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about amphibians and reptiles (and some other species and plants) I know the Latin name. My problem is more, when I used to it, it's harder to learn the new name, which is given to a specie.
For example: I'm still talking about Triturus vulgaris, T helveticus and so on. That's because I've learned these names 16 years ago
 
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