How do scientists come up with names for animals?

Im curious about how scientists give animals their scientific names and or how they give new species theirs. Also about if the common name is relevant to the scientific name or not. Anyone know anything on this topic?


Most scientific names have something to do with the location or habitus of a specific species. For example, Ken Griffiths named Anthomyia ottawana for the place that it was found, Ottawa.


Woah thats cool. I never knew about that :flushed: I always learn something new on the forums

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There’s lots of options for naming. Some good articles online, but this is a decent overview of some considerations:


Normally, the name is supposed to tell you something about the animal/plant. It can describe the characteristics that differentiate it from other related species or it can be descriptive of the location where it is from.
But there are no enforced rules. People name things after other people or groups of people that live in the area (native groups, for example).

A recently named treefrog in Mexico was given the species name Sarcohyla toyota because the herpetologists who discovered it used their Toyota Tacoma to get them to the rather inaccessible place it was found.

There was a frog named Rana bwana from Mexico that was named after the late herpetologist Jim Dixon (there are a lot of dixoni things named after him as well). The name Rana bwana was chosen because Jim’s nickname among his friends was “Bwana Jim” and Rana bwana had a nice rhyme to it. Unfortunately, it was later put in the genus Lithobates and Lithobates bwana doesn’t have the same ring. :slightly_frowning_face:

People also name things for amusement sometimes and occasionally to be mean spirited to their competitors!
There is an amusing website that covers a lot of examples of this -


You might enjoy this presentation by Stephen Heard, excerpted from his recent book “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider” all about the stories behind scientific names!


I particularly like the oxymoron page of the link you shared. Even though they’re oxymoronic, I really like these names as they describe the exception to the rule in a particular group. I’m not familiar with any of the examples given, but what more fitting name could a taxonomist propose for a population of Eriogonum inflatum that had deflated stems than Eriogonum inflatum var. deflatum?

I’ll add another to the list: Eupseudomorpha (eu- meaning true and pseudo- meaning false; so true-false morph).


I hear that when giving binomials one must adhere to latin grammar too? But the motivation for the scientific name of a taxon can come from many places, I don’t think there is a real set rule. It could be named after a person, a location, a specific trait it may possess etc. But note that species names can be reused for different valid genres (eg. Orgyia postica and Mimeusemia postica), and sometimes genus names can be repeated (eg. Dysphania the plant vs. Dysphania the moth).

It is a mix of Latin and Greek, which upsets language scholars.


Generally if the specific epithet is an adjective that is Latin or Ancient Greek in origin it has to be properly Latinized (for the Greek word) and conform in gender with the genus name. But then there are also nouns in apposition (no adjustment based on gender of genus) or eponyms which might not be Latinized at all – like the Rana bwana example above. Although it seems it should’ve been R. bwanai.

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I dont know how often this happens, but I have heard of some organisms being named in some way after their “discoverers”.


Happens frequently if someone other than the discoverer describes the species in the scientific literature. It’s considered bad form for the describer of the species to name it after himself/herself.


I have a nematode worm named after me, because I supplied many of the road-killed hosts to the parasitologists who named it.


Oh, this website looks like an extremely important use of my time!


It varies massively. General rules for scientific naming are very sparse (mainly outlined in the International Code of Zoological/Botanical Nomenclature, and possibly Phylocode if it ever catches on), and they aren’t enforced very rigorously. General rules that everyone tends to follow are…

  1. You can’t name a taxon after yourself. Not necessarily illegal but considered bad form and rude
  2. A species name can’t be an insult directed at a certain person. This one gets into a bit of vaguery because one person’s insult can be another person’s honor. One person might be thrilled with having a toad named after them, whereas others might consider it a poor comparison.
  3. The name has to be “Latinized”. That is, most names are some form of Greco-Latin using Latin roots or Latinized version of Greek words (e.g., uni- and mono- both mean one, but one is Greek and the other is Latin). Words in other languages are allowed, but they have to be Latinized first. For example the recent hyaenodont Simbakubwa is a Latinized version of a Swahili portmanteau for “big lion” and Tiktaalik comes from an Inuktitut word meaning “burbot” (the Inuit don’t have a lot of words for freshwater fishes given they live in the Arctic circle). This is also where you get the whole -i, -ae, -orum, -arum, -ensis at the end of various names. The first four reflect possessives of various groups of people (a male, a female, a group of men/mixed sex, and a group of women, respectively), and -ensis roughly means “of a place”. A good example of this is noveboracensis, which roughly translates to “from New York” (nov- = new, eborac- = derived from the Roman word for York [Eboracum], -ensis = belonging to that place).
  4. The name has to be based on a specimen reposited in a publicly-accessible institution. There have been pushes to abolish this (photographic taxonomy), but they’ve mostly been shot down because without a specimen to tie the name to it’s almost impossible for researchers to replicate the identification (e.g., you can’t get DNA from a photograph).
  5. The name must not already have been used for an animal/plant. In this case where two groups have used the same name, the older name is always considered valid (principle of priority) except in special exceptions granted by the ICZN or ICBN that would cause more trouble than they are worth (Tyrannosaurus rex got saved from turning into Manospondylus gigas this way). Notably this does not occur if one name refers to an animal and the other a plant due to a loophole in the rules (“animal” and “plant” nomenclatures are governed by different groups). So you can get weird stuff like a Dracaena lizard sitting on top of a Dracaena tree in Panama, or the rodent Zenkerella sitting in a Zenkerella plant in Cameroon.
  6. Only standard orthographies are allowed, and all generic and specific epithets must be single words. That is, no hyphens, no spaces between words, no umlauts, no accents, no apostrophes, no tildes, none of that. Terms that naturally have a hyphen or space between two words between them or have diacritics or apostrophes must be converted to a standardized form, and there are rules for that (e.g., the space or hyphen is removed, etc.) Notably this only applies to animal names and not plants due to the two having different organizations deciding rules for nomenclature (ICZN versus ICBN); diacritics and hyphens are still used in some plant names.

Aside from that pretty much anything goes. The usual method is to name a species based on some distinguishing characteristic useful for identification, and this tends to be the way I’ve gone with the few species I’ve named. E.g., the dromaeosaurid “raptor” Deinonychus antirrhopus means “counter-balancing terrible claw”, in reference to the enlarged claw on its foot and it’s stiff tail used as a counterbalance while standing.

Option two is to name it after the geographical area. In paleontology we call this “name-and-place-asaurus”, and these names are generally disliked (mostly because they are often found somewhere else. Examples include Albertosaurus, Canadia (a type of extinct worm), Castor canadensis, Cervus canadensis, etc. Indeed, some variant of canadensis or floridanus have been used more than two dozen times for different species, mostly because while genus names have to be unique specific epithets do not have to be.

Option three is typically some name in honor of a well-known figure or pop culture phenomenon. This can be anything from a local individual who helped in the initial discovery of the species, a rich donor the researcher wants to suck up to for more money, a politician the researcher wants to suck up to for more money, a colleague in biology the authors want to honor (since you can’t name a species after yourself), or some in-joke the authors want to immortalize. Often more cynically stated as the authors giving some species a dumb name because they want media attention for a species that would otherwise get no attention.

Who can get species named after them varies immensely. Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits has a carnivorous dinosaur named after him (Masiakasaurus knopfleri), and perhaps cynically the species got more attention for its connection to the Dire Straits than for it’s actual biology, which includes a bizarre buck-toothed appearance. Lady Gaga has a fern (Gaga) and an extinct ungulate (Gagadon minimonstrum) named after her. Barack Obama has at least nine species named after him:

  • a trapdoor spider (Aptostichus barackobamai)
  • a darter fish (Etheostoma obama)
  • a tapeworm (Paragordius obamai)
  • a blood fluke that only infests turtles (Baracktrema obamai)
  • an Amazonian striated puffbird (Nystalus obamai)
  • a cichlid (Teleogramma obamaorum, notably the suffix of the name [-orum, instead of “-i”] means it is meant to honor both Barack and Michelle)
  • a lichen (Caloplaca obamae, the name is incorrectly formatted because -ae would mean it is named for a female individual, and the authors meant to honor Barack Obama and not Michelle)
  • a basslet fish (Tosanoides obama)
  • and a fossil skink from the late Cretaceous (Obamadon gracilis)

Note that the surprisingly high number of parasitic worms aren’t meant as a political insult. It’s simply due to the fact that there are a lot of insects and parasitic worms out there (an offhand estimate I saw is that there is likely at least one parasitic species for every free-living animal), and thus entomologists and parasitologists tend to have a lot more opportunities to name things and hence tend to be more imaginative in what they do. E.g., Gary Larson had an owl mite (Strigiphilus garylarsoni) named after him, and Larson said "I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come".

Supposedly the person with the most taxa named after them is Alexander von Humboldt (somewhere in the range of 400 species with some form of humboldti as the specific epithet). Charles Darwin is probably the second most, and both Barack Obama and David Attenborough are somewhere in the top twenty.

Hitler of all people has a species named after him, a species of blind, cave-dwelling carabid beetle in Slovenia (Anophthalmus hitleri). This was…named back in the 30s when he just got elected to chancellor of Germany and hadn’t killed millions of people yet. The species is ironically in danger of extinction because it’s a cave species with low population density and collectors of historical Nazi memorabilia want one. This gets into another important rule for nomenclature: names don’t change, even if they become politically unfashionable. Doing so would cause mass confusion, encourage people to adopt non-standard nomenclatures based on individual political stances rather than encouraging a single system for everyone to facilitate ease of communication (say, Indian and Pakistani scientists using different names out of national pride…which has happened with titanosaur sauropods), and in general open up a big slippery slope with regards to rewriting history. You actually had this issue during the Bone Wars where Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope refused to use the scientific names coined by the other (e.g., Cope would use exclusively Camarasaurus, whereas Marsh would only use Morosaurus despite both working with the same species), and that was considered uncouth.

Mythology or fictional pop culture can be another popular source. Victorian biologists liked to name things after myths and folktales, including some really obscure ones that aren’t well known today (for example the butterfly Parnassius acdestis is named after a hermaphroditic minor Greek god that virtually no one today remembers), largely because academics in that time often had some background in classic literature. Folklore from other parts of the world has been popular as well (e.g., the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, named after the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl). Leigh Van Valen (1935-2010) liked to name species after The Lord of the Rings characters (among the names used are Ankagalon, Bomburodon/Bomburia, Earandil, and Fimbrethil and he isn’t the only one to do so). A few species have even been named in some workers in Quenya and Sindarin (i.e., ‘Elvish’). No names in Klingon have been proposed yet. The giant Pleistocene meiolaniid turtle Ninjemys oweni is actually named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Aside from that, nearly anything is allowed. I know of some species who were named based on material that was outright stolen from another museum, as in not just taken through colonial geopolitics, taken as spoils of war, or smuggled out of the country but outright stolen from a museum in Russia by another Russian museum in a smash-and-grab around 2012-ish and then published as new species (i.e., the ornithopod dinosaurs Kulindapteryx and Daurosaurus) and considered were considered as legitimately named, even though everyone knows the describers stole them. Indeed, Carolus Linnaeus himself reportedly broke into the house of some of his colleagues to steal their plant specimens (Linnaeus was a well-known narcissist who thought the rules didn’t apply to him).

It is possible, but very, very hard to get banned from being allowed to name new species. George Willis Kirkaldy got himself banned from naming new species after he spammed the zoological literature with a large number of duplicate names he used to make references to women he had one-night stands with (e.g., Peggichisme, Marichisme, pronounced “Peggy-kiss-me” and “Mary-kiss-me”. Raymond Hoser is in the same boat, being currently considered for a lifetime ban after having spammed the zoological nomenclature with a large number of scientific names (most of which he named after himself, his wife, or his dogs, who were in turn named after other genera of reptiles. For example, the guy had a dog named Oxyuranus, after the genus for taipan snakes). Nearly all of these names he published through a self-published, non-peer-reviewed newsletter, and mostly did so by figuring out which research labs were working on new species and deliberately scooping them by publishing subpar analyses (e.g., generally lacking genetic phylogenetic data to support the diagnosis) in the name of getting his names out faster. This is exploiting a loophole in that description quality by itself usually isn’t a factor as to whether a name is valid, as long as it is enough to be distinct.

Common names are a whole different thing, mostly because there is no standardization for common names and what someone calls a species can vary widely depending on the local culture or even between different regions within the same culture. This is one reason why people use scientific names, different people may use the terms mountain lion, puma, catamount, panther, katalgar, ko-icto, susuarana, erielhonan, gato monte, leon, mountain screamer, Florida panther, and more (IIRC the last count was there were at least 83 of thes names out there), but they all refer to the same animal: Puma concolor (with the one caveat that “Florida panther” typically refers to a specific subspecies of mountain lion, P. concolor coryi). I can actually talk to my Spanish-speaking colleagues pretty well even without using Spanish because the scientific names are the same, and it’s even possible to parse out German, Korean, and Russian scientific papers because of it with a bit of work. Knowing Latinate words, especially those used in scientific description, helps.

With regards to what common names are used, sometimes a local name referring to a descriptive feature just catches on, or sometimes the name is a loanword from another language:

  • “opossum” is Powhatan
  • “bandicoot” is…actually from the Telugu people in India. The name originally referred to a type of rat (Bandicota spp.)
  • “moose” is Algonquin
  • “coyote” is originally Nahuatl (coyotl), i.e., the lingua franca of the Aztec Empire
  • “wapiti” is Cree/Shawnee
  • “elk” is probably proto-Germanic
  • “monitor” comes from Arabic and may have originated from a Semitic language (waran)
  • “capercaillie” is Gaelic
  • “okapi” (and the genus name Okapia) comes from the name for this animal in the Mvuba language of central Africa
  • “alligator” is actually Spanish (el lagarto)

And these are just a few of the many, many examples.

More rarely, the common name will be the translated version of the scientific name, usually in the case of very obscure animals that don’t have an existing name in the local language (especially extinct one). For example Jefferson’s ground sloth and Harlan’s ground sloths are partially translations of Megalonyx jeffersoni and Paramylodon harlani. But generally paleontologists don’t bother with common names outside of Pleistocene megafauna. This has become more common in living biology as cryptic species that don’t have distinct local names become recognized.


In 1818, William Elford Leach named the isopod genera Conilera, Lironeca, Nerocila, Olencira, Rocinela, and Cirolana. All are anagrams of Caroline or Carolina. Although his publications never explained which Caroline he was “honoring” this way, apparently the theory is that he was insulting a Princess Caroline who was widely reviled at the time (the genera are all blood-sucking parasites).

But to demonstrate that scientific naming can be a mix of whimsical imagination and nit-picky rules, in 1996, after three years of discussion, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature voted, 12 to 11, that the official name of one of the genera was Livoneca, not Lironeca, because that’s how Leach spelled it the first time he used it (presumably a typo, but rules are rules).


I would like to defend capensis, in geography, since that is for our floral kingdom. Altho there is at least one lost capensis in the USA.

It’s unfortunate that botanists and zoologists don’t communicate. I wonder how many obs are trapped at life 'cos its some plant, but not a fish etc.


You can change who you’re responding to in the edit area, just click edit and then click on the reply button on whatever post you want to reply to.

Oh wait really? I was looking for something like that. TY

Welcome to the forums

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