What’s in a name?

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-EbICILutWk.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘Species are named by a binomial system devised by the 18th Century Swedish professor, physician, and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778).’);

Zoologists have named more than 1.5 million species of animals (about 1 million of this number are insects), and thousands more are added to the list each year. Yet some zoologists believe the species named so far make up less than 20 percent of all living animals and less than 1 percent of all those that have lived in the past.

To communicate with each other about the diversity of life, biologists have found it to be a practical necessity not only to name organisms but also to classify them and give them scientific names that are universal in application. Better-known animals have common or colloquial names, and this leads to confusion. For example, a rather large reptile in this area is the hog-nosed snake, and in other areas of the country it is locally called the puff adder, toad snake, or hissing adder, names that are sometimes applied to other types of snakes. Unless the scientific name of the hog-nosed snake is used (Heterodon platyrhinos), no one can be absolutely sure to which reptile one is referring.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the classifying and naming of animals and plants, the science of taxonomy was created. A taxonomist is one who specializes in the recognition and naming of new species, usually within a specific group, mosquitoes, for example. The science of systematics is somewhat broader than taxonomy as it includes classification and evolutionary biology, which is the study of diversity and orderliness in nature.

The father of taxonomy and systematics was the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus who lived from 1707 to 1778. He had a great talent for collecting and classifying living things and worked out a scheme for classification that is but little changed today. Linnaeus’ system of classification is based on organisms being arranged into a descending series of groups of ever-increasing similarity. The major categories of classification in the descending series are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Each of these groups may be subdivided into more specific categories, such as subclass, or subspecies.

Each organism has a taxonomic pedigree that is integrated into this system. Man’s pedigree, for example is as follows: Phylum: Animalia (all animals). Phylum: Vertebrata (all animals with backbones), Class: Mammalia (vertebrates with hair and mammary glands), Order:Primata (mammals with large brain development), Family: Hominidae (Man and the great apes), Genus: Homo (hominids similar to man), Species: sapiens (knowing, smart).

The scientific name of an animal or plant is made up of its genus and species names, and is called the binomial system. Hence the scientific name of modern man is Homo sapiens, meaning in Latin “all knowing.”

A generation or so ago, a taxonomist decided that an animal was a new species solely based on anatomical differences from previously described forms. Many of these creators of “new species” failed to take into account that no two animals are alike, and variation within a single species may be significant. The axiom that all individuals vary is one of the seminal points in Darwin’s theory on the evolution of species by natural selection.

Old-line taxonomists were divided into two groups, the splitters and the lumpers. Splitters would name a new species based on the observation of a slight variation from a so-called normal type. Literally, if a hair on the body of an insect was observed to be split rather than single as in the normal type, the “eager beaver” taxonomist would proclaim to the world that he had found a new form of life. Perhaps the most ridiculous example of a splitter was a man who was a self-styled expert on crane flies. During his active career, he named more than 50,000 new species of this type of fly, each usually based on a “split hair.” Needless to say 90 percent of those he declared to be new species and gave new names to have been declared to be invalid.

A Lumper, on the other hand, was just as dangerous as a splitter. If two specimens only vaguely resembled one another, the lumper would declare them to be the same species. For example, a lumper would consider that only one species existed within the mosquito genus Anopheles. However, the genus Anopheles contains many different species, only a few of which transmit malaria. This is especially important when control measures are instigated against malaria transmitters as each species has more or less different breeding and biting habits.

The modern-day taxonomist uses the so-called biological concept in defining a species. Simply put, if two types can breed and produce fertile offspring, they are the same species; if they cannot, they are different species.

Out of all of this mass confusion, the biological concept has placed the science of taxonomy on a firm foundation, and no longer does an animals have to bear the indignity of not even knowing what its true name is.

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