Species names

What is a ‘species name’?

A species (or ‘scientific’) name is the label used to refer to a real life organism. The name is permanently and uniquely assigned to a representative specimen—the ‘type’ specimen—of the group of organisms that share the same set of morphological characteristics. Genetic characteristics are also playing an increasingly important role in species differentiation and naming.

Species names are given in latinised language and consist of at least two parts:

  • genus
  • species epithet.

A name may also have other parts, such as sub-species epithet, form, variety, cultivar or strain.

When printed, a species name is displayed in italic font, eg Eucalyptus blakelyi.

Whenever a species name is used, it should be accompanied by the author of the name and it’s taxonomic usage, as this confirms the context for the use of the name—referred to as a ‘taxon concept’. This is significant in name taxonomy. For example, the full scientific name for ‘Eucalyptus blakelyi’ is ‘Eucalyptus blakelyi Maiden var. blakelyi’. Its common or vernacular names are ‘Blakely’s Red Gum’ or ‘Hill Red Gum’.

How is a species name determined?

Species names are determined by taxonomists using rules specified by international nomenclatural codes. While the rules governing names are quite stable, our understanding of the characteristics and assumptions used in classifying organisms changes. This can lead to a change in the grouping of organisms represented by a ‘type’ specimen, eg groupings may being split, merged, amalgamated or moved to different places in the taxonomic tree. Previous names are retained as synonyms of the current name to allow taxonomists and others to navigate from a previous name to the current name and vice versa.

Can a species name have more than one meaning?

Different scientists may use different characteristics, criteria and assumptions to classify the same organisms into homogeneous groups and/or the taxonomic tree. This can result in different, but equally valid, uses of the same name, ie different taxon concepts. To overcome some of the problems that this causes when interpreting a name, groups of eminent scientists make decisions about which particular classifications for different groups of organisms should be ‘accepted’ for general use of names in those groups. The Australian Plant Census (APC) and Australian Faunal Directory (AFD) represent the accepted classifications of species names for Australian plants and animals respectively.

Why does a species have more than one name?

Scientific names and common names all refer to a set of organisms considered to belong to a single species or taxa. Over time, different names may be applied to the same species because:

  • Two taxonomists may separately describe a species and give it different scientific names. In time, these species may be recognised as the same species and the later name will become a synonym of the first.
  • As we learn more about the relationships between species, a species may need to be moved into a different genus from the one in which it was originally described. In this case, the names will be in a different genera but share the same specific epithet (the second word in a binomial scientific name), or will have a specific epithet which only differs in its ending, eg ‘-us’ as opposed to ‘-a’.
  • Taxonomists may also conclude that a widely-distributed species is actually several species. Some Australian datasets may have changed to reflect this splitting, while others are use older name. This is a difficult situation for the Atlas to handle automatically.
  • Species names are often mis-spelt resulting in significant amounts of data and literature being associated with the mis-spelt name. Sometimes it is hard to establish whether a new spelling is a mis-spelling or a correction for an error according to the nomenclatural codes.

Common names can be even more problematic.

Where does the ALA get its species names?

The ALA draws its species names from:

What is the problem with common names?

Common names, such as ‘grey kangaroo’, do not have the curatorial controls that scientific names do. So while they are useful as a colloquial label, they are not a substitute for a scientific name when precision is needed, eg when identifying an organism, in taxonomic work or in matters of conservation or biosecurity.

The main concerns in using common names in scientific work derive from the confusion created by such names:

  • Multiple species may have the same common name, eg both the Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790) and the Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus (Desmarest, 1817)) are commonly known as ‘grey kangaroos’. Which of these is a particular ‘grey kangaroo’?
  • A single species may have several common names, often regionally based, eg the plant Echium plantagineum L. has an extensive range across southern Australia and is known in various places as ‘Patterson’s Curse’, ‘Salvation Jane’, ‘Southern Bluebell’, ‘Riverina Bluebell’, ‘blue weed’, ‘Purple Viper’s Bugloss’, and ‘purple bugloss’. Anyone unfamiliar with a particular common name will not know the species referred to.

Why doesn’t the ALA list all the common names for a species?

Common names for a species tend to be local or regional, eg the plant Echium plantagineum L. has an extensive range across southern Australia and is known in various places as ‘Patterson’s Curse’, ‘Salvation Jane’, ‘Southern Bluebell’, ‘Riverina Bluebell’, ‘blue weed’, ‘Purple Viper’s Bugloss’, and ‘purple bugloss’. Where a common name is known we include it in the Atlas.

If you know a common name that is not in the ALA, please contact us.

How does the ALA resolve species names, noting that they change over time?

The ALA periodically retrieves the latest information provided by the National Species Lists and uses the taxonomic information to organise the biodiversity information it has.

In June 2016, a major upgrade to the taxonomic information in the ALA went live. You can read about it here.

How does the ALA treat manuscript or phrase names?

The ALA includes occurrence records that use phrase names or manuscript names as the scientific name. This is valid in some circumstances, and relatively common for species with a conservation status. Many of these phrase names are included in the National Species Lists and we have species pages for some of  them. However, due to limitations in the algorithms we use to parse scientific names, the phrase name records are not always linked to their matching species pages, or pages where they are recorded as synonyms, eg many phrase names are mapped to a genus page.