‘What’s in a Name?’ Launched at Harvard Museum of Natural History

Why are names important in science? What is the difference between scientific names (also known as Latin names or taxonomic names) and common names? Why do some species have multiple names? The grant project team for What’s in a Name, supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), set out to find answers and develop exhibits and other ways for anyone to explore this phenomenon. With millions of different species to identify and understand, the process of naming organisms helps scientists organize and understand the tree of life. The physical and virtual results of this exploration creatively demonstrate how scientists identify and name species, how names relate to scientific research and the progression of knowledge, and how museum specimen collections play a crucial role in the process of naming.

Why would something be called “Fried Egg jelly fish”, and also be known as Phacellophora camtschatica?

Scientific names take the form of “Genus species”. Scientific names serve to distinctively identify an organism and also to show evolutionary relationships. The genus links the organism to its evolutionary relatives while the species name demonstrates its uniqueness (not unlike the family and first name convention of many people in North America). Organisms also have common names. Common names can be confusing—for instance a “Robin” in the United States is a completely different bird than a “Robin” in Europe, but if the scientific name is used, confusion can be reduced via the name unique to the organism.

The system of binomial nomenclature is used to assign species with their two-part Latin names. Carl von Linné (1707 – 1778) established a system of tiered taxonomic classification, which assigned species formal names, in the 18th century. His classification is outlined in his book, Systema Naturae. His purpose was to reduce confusion from the proliferation of common names by supplying a unique name to each organism that also displayed potential relationships with other organisms. The names were formulated from Latin words. Linné even Latinized his own name and is now best known by that name: Carolus Linnaeus.

Species may be discovered by scientists poring over specimens in a museum or someone exploring an area rich in biodiversity. It is not necessary to be a scientist to name a new species but scientific names must conform to rules laid out by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code for Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants. Names can reflect a characteristic of a species (Peromyscus leucopus-white-footed mouse) or can be named after a person or location (Mandelia microcornata-a nudibranch named for Nelson Mandela). Sometimes, scientists display a sense of humor when naming: Agra phobia and Agra vation are the scientific names of South American beetles. A hungry entomologist (Neal Evenhuis) named a series of flies (genus) Pieza and most notably, a species Pieza pi.

The results from the work of What’s in a Name? include four interactive exhibit stations at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Honeybees, the extinct Dimetrodon, Jellies and Poison Ivy. There are also free online resources, including a website and a 60-page free e-book. The online resources include eight more species stories that feature images and references from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and include familiar organisms like the dodo and sugar maple, as well as our favorite, the snail Vargapupa biheli named after BHL!

Featured in the exhibit display on Dimetrodon, Stephanie Pierce, Assistant Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology, Harvard University, describes research being done right now on specimens of the fossil species Dimetrodon milleri, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology collection:

The What’s in a Name? project is a partnership between Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC), the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), and the BHL, as represented by the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. This project was made possible by IMLS.

For more information about scientific names and naming, check out the following sources

Jane Pickering is the Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.

Constance Rinaldo, formerly the Head Librarian of the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, supported the work of BHL for 17 years. During her many years of leadership at BHL, she served in all positions of the Members Council Executive Committee, including as the inaugural BHL Secretary, followed by Vice-Chair, Chair, and Immediate Past Chair.