What's In a (Scientific) Name?
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Article Summary: Here's a clear summary of the Linnean system of binomial nomenclature, the scientific way to name living things with a two part generic (genus) and specific (species) name.
Biological Classification & Binomial Nomenclature
Portions of this article originally appeared on Suite101 online magazine.
Page last updated 4/2014
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Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swedish physician and botanist, was the founder of modern taxonomy. He originated a system called binomial nomenclature which is used for naming living things and grouping similar organisms into categories. Taxonomy is used in the related discipline of biological systematics, when scientists try to determine the evolutionary relationships between organisms (how closely related they are to each other).
What is a Species?
The species name, also called specific epithet, is the second part of a scientific name, and refers to one species within a genus. A species is a group of organisms that typically have similar anatomical characteristics and, in sexual reproducers, can successfully interbreed to produce fertile offspring. In the genus Ursus, there are a number of different bear species, including Ursus arctos, the brown bear, Ursus americanus, the American black bear and Ursus maritimus, the polar bear.
What Is a Genus?
In biology, ‘genus’ is the taxonomic classification lower than ‘family’ and higher than ‘species’. In other words, genus is a more general taxonomic category than is species. For example, the generic name Ursus represents brown bears, polar bears and black bears.
American Black Bear
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Also called binary nomenclature, this formal system of naming organisms consists of two Latinized names, the genus and the species. All living things, and even some viruses, have a scientific name.
The binomial aspect of this system means that each organism is given two names, a ‘generic name,’ which is called the genus (pl. genera) and a ‘specific name,’ the species. Together the generic and specific name of an organism is its scientific name. Having a universal system of binomial nomenclature allows scientists to speak the same language when referring to living things, and avoids the confusion of multiple common names that may differ based on region, culture or native language.
When written, a scientific name is always either italicized, or, if hand-written, underlined. The genus is capitalized and the species name is lower case. For example, the proper format for the scientific name of humans is Homo sapiens.
Today, biologists still use the Linnean system of classification, but advances in the fields of genetics and evolutionary theory has resulted in some of Linnaeus’ original categories being changed to better reflect the relationships among organisms.