Most people usually know the name of the animals they see either on TV, in the zoo, in their backyards, or on a nature hike. The animals may be dogs, cats, horses, mosquitoes, goldfish, elephants, lizards, and many, many others. However, there are other terms used for every animal species on Earth called scientific names. The origin of most scientific names is Latin.
Theoretically, every scientific name includes two parts. The system is called 'binomial nomenclature'. People throughout the world, mostly scientists, zoologists and other experts who do work related to animal species use scientific names to clearly communicate important information about the different species of animals.
There are sets of rules accepted all over the world about how to name animals, and the system helps experts to avoid naming the same thing more than once, though sometimes it does happen. If the naming rules are accurately and efficiently followed, then every scientific name will be unique.
For example, if striped skunks are given the scientific name M. mephitis, no other animal species can be given the same name. So, if a French scientist studying relatives of skunks and another scientist want to discuss striped skunks with an Australian researcher, both use the scientific name and know exactly what the other is talking about. Simply saying a skunk without the scientific name may become confusing.
A scientific name is designed to tell something about the animal's relationships with other animals. First, the species is given a generic name and a specific name. For example, using a bluegill sunfish as an example, its scientific name is Lepomis machrochirus. The generic epithet is Lepomis and the specific epithet is machrochirus.
The generic epithet is the name of the genus (animal group) to which bluegill sunfish belong, the genus Lepomis. Some genera contain only one species, but most are made up of many species. For example, there are other species of sunfish in the genus Lepomis such as green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) and longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis). Notice, that each of the sunfish species share the same generic epithet- Lepomis. It is an indication that all the sunfish are more closely related to each other than to any other species of fish. The genus is the first level of taxonomic organization, which is the system used for naming all species of living things. Species that are most closely related are placed together in the same genus.
In addition, scientific names are also descriptive which tell something about the animal such as in the following examples: longear sunfishes have long flaps extending from their gills making them look like they have long ears and their specific epithet, megalotis, means 'big ears'; yellow-headed blackbirds' scientific name is Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, which can be translated as 'yellow-headed-yellow head'. Other scientific names may include the names of people who were instrumental in discovering or describing the species, they may contain references to regions where the species are found.
Common names are not unique and can lead to confusion if they are used by zoologists or others whose work is related to animals. For example, there are many types of badgers such as honey badgers, North American badgers, stink badgers, and others. Though they are all called badgers and are all mammals, they are not closely related to each other. Each of them has a different general epithet and specific epithet.
As with all fields in science, the process of naming living organisms is subject to change. When the scientific understanding of animal species and their relationships changes, it may mean that scientific names change as well. At one time, all small cat species were included in the genus Felis but later were split into multiple genera to better show their evolutionary differences. Finally, there are also some species that come to be known by multiple scientific names.
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