Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Why We Have To Have Those Nerdy Scientific Names


I've noticed that nature bloggers tend to be taxonomists. Many always include a scientific name along with the common name. This may seem poindextery nerdy at first, but there are some pretty valid reasons for including the scientific name. That said, I usually don't, mainly due to being too lazy to look up the ones I don't know by heart.

(Actually, I think there are more important things to know by heart, like your children's friend's names, your anniversary date, and where the living room tv remote is.)

The fact is, we need those "official" names to eliminate the confusion of different languages and localized common names. Common names are what grandpappy called that flower, bug, snake, etc. He told your Dad and he passed it on to you. The problem is other grandpappys (and grandmammies) were sharing their knowledge with their children also.

The photo above is of a series of sandy mounds left by the pocket gopher (a mammal), which around here would just be called a gopher by most people, but oldtimers might call the same animal a "salamander". The salamander moniker comes as a corruption of "sandy mounder". Try saying it quickly. Seeeee? Just to confuse the issue, we also have a reptile, a tortoise, called a gopher and it too digs burrows and will make mounds of sand around it's burrow entrance. Lots of room for confusion here and we are still in the same language...

My favorite example of a cacaphony of common names for the same animal is the mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, painter, cat o'mount, wildcat....whew! Same cat...different regions of the country.

Scientific names are decided by Gandalf The White and there are certain rules you must obey to use them correctly. It's not complicated.

Rule # 1: The standard scientific name has 2 parts. (yes, sometimes more, nerds)

Rule # 2: The first name is the genus and is always capitalized. This name represents a group of closely related organisms...kind of like your family surname.

Rule # 3: The second name is the species and is never capitalized. This is more like your first name, a more specific identifier.

Rule # 4: When you write a scientific name, you should underline or use italics.

This is wrong: Tursiops truncatus
This is right: Tursiops truncatus

Taxonomic trivia: Latin is used mostly. It's partly tradition and partly due to Latin being a "dead" language. Making it the official taxonomic language won't offend the Brits, Chinese, French, Russians, etc.

If this seems confusing, don't blame me.

Blame Linnaeus.


Xariklea said...

I saw "binomial nomenclature" and thought, "Hurray! I finally know what he's talking about and don't feel like a dumbass!"

Sometimes, I paid attention in high school, and sometimes that attention was paid in science and Latin....

So is a mole cricket a mole or a cricket? I know they're damn ugly and good fishbait....

Deb said...

And, every so often nerdy societies of taxonomists get together and decide that the old scientific name for a species isn't quite good enough, so they come up with a new one. I learned walleye as Stizostedion vitreum vitreum and even though I work with walleye often I don't remember the new name, or the reason for the change.

Wayne said...

I hope The Administrator at Roundrock will take note of the "Genus species" upper-lower case rules there. ( ;-) , this is just a pet peeve of mine; take no notice.)

My father and his sister are also nature folks, and *their* father, my grandfather who I never knew, WAS Gandalf the White. So he actually spoke in scientificeese, and not commonese, not because he was a botanist (he was a type setter) but because he did, well, what I do: wander around and find plants (and animals - his specialty there was snakes) and plant the former and observe the latter.

So my father and his sister grew up knowing all the scientific names and few of the common ones. This is what they told me. I believe it to be true.

jrqng - what scientific names do to you

Rexroth's Daughter said...

When I first started blogging I used the scientific name for things, but one day I stopped. Every now and then I think I should add it to a post (I always know what the scientific name is because I have invariably looked it up for one reason or another while composing the post), but I don't.

BTW-- I love all the common names for Puma concolor too. But I also found a reference online to Felis concolor. Uh-oh.

doubleknot said...

Finding the right scientific name for plants or animals is sometimes very important. Like you said what is called one thing in one part of the country may have a different common name in another. I used to be big in herbs and found out very qickly that I had to do some research to know what paticular herb I was dealing with.
Thanks for the refresher on scientific names.

Likes2mtnbike said...

Gee thanks, professor! Seriously, though, could you post a photo of a sparkleberry bush? I suppose I could look one up on the internet but you are much more fun to read.

OldHorsetailSnake said...

I got it! I got it!

Maudlineum geneosa:

My name, all gussied up.

Floridacracker said...

Mole crickets are crickets...I never tried one as bait. Learned something today!

I had the same angst when pelecypoda went to bivalvia.

Do you think Pablo knows about that Administrator guy who OCCASIONALLY responds to a comment at this site? Someone should tell him...

Like Deb said, it changes. I learned the Felis name along time ago and still use it...I may be out of date!

Glad it was useful. Pretty important to know what you are using for food or medicine.

I think I can take care of that when I get home tonight. Stay tuned.

Just add Animalia, chordata, mammalia, primate, hominidae to the front of it. This is what our moms should call us when we are in trouble.

The MacBean Gene said...

Scientific names are necessary when blogging. Recently, the Lifecruisers, who are a good read and post some neat pictures, in Sweden had trouble identifying some birds I mentioned untill I posted the scientific names.

The MacBean Gene said...

They did mention in todays post Linnaeus was a Swede.

Hick said...

This is exactly why I call you the Oracle of Florida...because of these nerdy posts (which I love to read, by the way.)

Cougars/Mountain Lions are interchangeable around these parts but if we see one we normally say uh, oh.

A couple of months ago I spied one in a field checking out some turkeys. He was too far away to get a photo and when I stopped to look (I was in my car), he glanced over at me and then back at his prey. They are cheeky creatures.

Floridacracker said...

I like her site, I went there once from yours. Yes, Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist.

Usually, when I'm writing something especially nerdy, yet somehow understandable, you and nerd boy are in the back of my mind...as in, Can Hick use this in her homeschooling?
Someday, I'll share my termite trick.