Most people would be aware that for every common name for an animal or plant, there is a corresponding latin name (egg, our latin name is Homo sapiens). Latin names are particularly important for scientific researchers, especially when trying to identify a specific creature.
Latin names should reflect something about the animal, or where it lives. In the early days of scientific discovery, it was quite common for scientists to name animals or plants after each other, a practice frowned on these days. So, let’s learn a little latin!
Scientific latin names are made up of 2 words, the first being the genus, or group, and the second name being the species, or individual name. This naming system is now known as “binomial nomenclature” (bi = two, nomen = name, calo = call, so it translates as “two-name name-calling”). It is quite simple really. Each species has a surname and a personal name. (just like you do, unless you’re a Brazilian soccer player!). If you are called John Smith then Smith is your surname, and John is your personal name – get it?
For instance, the nurse shark’s scientific name is Ginglymostoma cirratum. Ginglymostoma is derived from the Greek words gynglimos, meaning “hinge” and stoma, meaning “mouth.” All nurse sharks have hinged mouths. However, the species name cirratum is from the Latin word for curl. Thus, this particular nurse shark is known as “the shark with the hinged, curly mouth”.
A number of species of unicornfish are in the genus Naso, representing the large horn-like projection extending out from their forehead (Nasomeaning nose). Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, refers to them as being “big-winged New Englander.”
whilst the minke whale is called the Balaenoptera acutorostrata, with the species name referring to the fact it has a sharp (acute) snout (rostrum).
Many moray eels are under the genus name, Gymnothorax, which refers to the fact that they have a bare chest (ie, no scales), and the famous butterflyfish fall under the genus Chaetodon, which literally means “bristled tooth”, describing their unusual dentition.
Some other names that you may come across are australis (from the south), azurea (blue),
humilis (short)and viridus (green). There are some words that mean the same thing, such as magna, majus, maxima and gigantica all mean “big”, whilst minima, minor, pumila and pygmaea all mean “small”.
So the next time you see long winded scientific names, try and work out what the origin of the word is, and it may help you understand the animal a bit more!