What’s in a name…

Parkland Trees in Winter © Bo Beolens

Scientific names may look complicated, or even unnecessary until you know why they have come about. In truth, its all because in different places even in a single country, and obviously in different countries, something will have lots of different names. Scientific ‘nomenclature’ was created (By Swedish scientist Carl von Linné [1707-1778] – confusingly known by his Latinised name ‘Linnaeus’) to get around the problem so everyone could ‘sing off the same hymn sheet’.

We have a great example of how common names can cause confusion, even here in England. If you ask for ‘Rig & chips’ in your local Thanet chippy they will know what you mean. Use that word in London or Leeds they won’t have a clue… as they might call the same fish Huss, or Rock Eel or Rock Salmon or Flake and probably loads of other names. What is more, the fish they are referring to is a type of small shark called a spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). In fact that species, which was most often used is now endangered and now fishermen catch a similar species (Starry Smoothhound Mustelus asterias, Rough-hound Scyliorhinus canicula or Bull Huss Scyliorhinus stellaris) to provide you with your fish supper.

With all natural plants, animals, fungi and other natural stuff there are a number of parts to the scientific name. Most often you will see two words such as Homo sapiens. By convention scientific names are usually in italics with the first part capitalised but not the second. The first part is called the ‘genus’. This is the ‘family’ name. For example the family of ‘bears’ is called ‘Ursus‘. The second part is the species name. For example the ‘Polar Bear’ is ‘Ursus maritimus‘ and the Eurasian ‘Brown Bear’ is ‘Ursus arctos‘. The second part, or species name, is often a description, so the polar bear is, in the scientific name ‘sea bear’. In America the same species ‘Ursus arctos‘ is called the grizzly bear.

There is sometime a third part of a scientific name… this is a sub-species. It’s not quite a species in its own right but it may be on its way to becoming one. ‘Speciation’, that is becoming a separate species, usually happens over a VERY long time period and usually where species become isolated geographically and natural mutation means two or more separated populations change differently. Some things get many sub-species in different places, others none at all.

Then there is hybridisation. This is when two different species manage to have offspring. For example, there have been cases of lions and tigers interbreeding. The off-spring of hybrids are usually unable to produce young being sterile, but sometimes they can breed true and a new species is eventually born. Most hybrids show the some characteristics of each parent. Hybridisation between plants is more common than it is in higher animals.

Finally, there are ‘cultivars’ otherwise called ‘varieties’. These are not new species or subspecies simply different shapes, sizes and colours. In the animal world, for example, all pet dogs are the same species but there are numerous varieties from Great Danes to Dachshunds. In the plant world these variations, often especially bred for their different colours, forms or better adaptation to growing conditions are called ‘cultivars’. Most of us will be most familiar with rose varieties grown for their attractive blooms… this is often the case too with tree varieties.