I don’t always look for scientific names when I’m learning about plants and animals, but when I stumbled across meaning of the Eastern Newt’s scientific name while working on my last article I had to see what else I could learn about scientific names. I have to be honest, I didn’t really care to learn scientific names until I was junior in college and even then, I still feel like they were forced on me. I was taking a dendrology class, a class about trees, and every week I was required to not only learn how to identify trees, I was also required to learn their scientific name and family name. The worst part? Not only did I have to remember the scientific names, I also had to be able to spell them.
At first, I couldn’t understand why my professor was forcing me to learn the scientific names of every tree we studied. Why waste our time learning Latin names that we will rarely use after graduating from college? Only scientists refer to things by their scientific names, right? Well, it turns out knowing the scientific name of something can be important.
Take Liriodendron tulipifera, for example. Growing up I learned that the little sapling growing in my front yard was a Tulip Tree. It didn’t take me long to learned how to identify it by it’s beautiful four-lobed leaves that to this day remind me of a cat. Imagine my surprise when I got to college and suddenly the tree I had been calling a Tulip Tree was introduced by a new name, Yellow-Poplar. After learning a little bit more about the life history and taxonomy of Liriodendron tulipifera, I quickly realized that both common names, the English names commonly used by people, are very misleading. Sure, the Tulip Tree has tulip-shaped flowers, but the Tulip Tree doesn’t produce tulips. To call it Yellow-Poplar isn’t much better. True poplars are found in the willow family, while Yellow-Poplars are actually a member of the magnolia family.
Common names can be confusing in other ways too. While some organisms can have multiple common names, we often use one common name to describe multiple organisms. Take sunflowers, for example. When we call a flower a sunflower we could be talking about one of seventy species of sunflowers that are native to North America. We use one name to describe seventy species. These names, of course, vary from region to region and change based on which language you are speaking in.
In order to clear up some of the confusion that common names caused, a system of naming was established in 1753 by a Swedish botanist and physician named Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’ naming system, which is still used internationally to this day, assigns each organism a unique two-word Latin name. Unlike common names, no two organisms have the same scientific name. In addition to giving each organism a unique name, the scientific name is also designed to tell us something about the plant’s or animal’s relationship to other plants or animals. The first part of the name, the genus, helps us describe what group a plant or an animal is a part of, while the second word, the species, is used to describe these individual species that make up these groups. These unique names are usually determined by the scientist that discovers the plant or animal for the first time.
Some scientific names describe the organisms they are affiliated with perfectly. The scientific name for Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), for example, literally means “White-Headed Sea Eagle.” The species name, leucocephalus, means “white-headed,” while the genus name, Haliaeetus, describes an entire family of birds known as the sea eagles. The scientific name for Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera, literally means paper-baring birch. This name, of course, perfectly describes the way the papery bark peels off of this tree.
Other scientific names have absolutely nothing to do with the organism itself. The former president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Dr. Quinten Wheeler, famously named two new species of slime-mold beetles after the former president and vice president of the United States, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. While these names aren’t used to describe what these specific slime-mold beetles look like or act like, they do at least give the beetles a unique name.
Even years after graduating from college scientific names are still intimidating to use and spell, but to this day I understand that, just like most things, they have a purpose. Scientific names allow us to communicate across multiple cultures by providing us a consistent alternative to regional common names and in most cases they give us clues to help us identify the species. So, next time you pick up a field guide to look up the common name of a bird or a tree, take a quick peak at the scientific name. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Eastern Newt’s scientific name, Notophthalmus viridescens, comes from the Greek words noton, meaning “back” and ophthalmos meaning “eye.” Its scientific name perfectly describes the bright orange eye-like spots along its back. I wonder what viridescens means…
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.