Species description

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A species description is a formal description of a newly discovered species, usually in the form of a scientific paper. Its purpose is to give a clear description of a new species of organism and explain how it differs from species which have been described previously or are related. The species description often contains photographs or other illustrations of the type material and states in which museums it has been deposited. The publication in which the species is described gives the new species a formal scientific name. Some 1.9 million species have been identified and described, out of some 8.7 million that may actually exist. [1] Millions more have become extinct throughout the existence of life on Earth.


Naming process

A name of a new species becomes valid (available in zoological terminology) with the date of publication of its formal scientific description. Once the scientist has performed the necessary research to determine that the discovered organism represents a new species, the scientific results are summarized in a scientific manuscript, either as part of a book, or as a paper to be submitted to a scientific journal.

A scientific species description must fulfill several formal criteria specified by the nomenclature codes, e.g. selection of at least one type specimen. These criteria are intended to ensure that the species name is clear and unambiguous, for example, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) states that "Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence." [2]

Species names are written in the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, but many species names are based on words from other languages, Latinized.

Once the manuscript has been accepted for publication, [3] the new species name is officially created.

Once a species name has been assigned and approved, it can generally not be changed except in the case of error. For example, a species of beetle ( Anophthalmus hitleri ) was named by a German collector after Adolf Hitler in 1933 when he had recently become chancellor of Germany. [4] It is not clear whether such a dedication would be considered acceptable or appropriate today, but the name remains in use. [4]

Species names have been chosen on many different bases. Most common is a naming for the species' external appearance, its origin, or the species name is a dedication for a certain person. Examples would include a bat species named for the two stripes on its back ( Saccopteryx bilineata ), a frog named for its Bolivian origin ( Phyllomedusa boliviana ), and an ant species dedicated to the actor Harrison Ford ( Pheidole harrisonfordi ). A scientific name in honor of a person or persons is a known as a taxonomic patronym or patronymic. [5] [6]

A number of humorous species names also exist. Literary examples include the genus name Borogovia (an extinct dinosaur), which is named after the borogove, a mythical character from Lewis Carrol's poem "Jabberwocky". A second example, Macrocarpaea apparata (a tall plant) was named after the magical spell "to apparate" from the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling, as it seemed to appear out of nowhere. [7] In 1975, the British naturalist Peter Scott proposed the binomial name Nessiteras rhombopteryx ("Ness monster with diamond-shaped fin") for the Loch Ness Monster; it was soon spotted that it was an anagram of "Monster hoax by Sir Peter S".

Species names recognizing benefactors

Species have frequently been named by scientists in recognition of supporters and benefactors. For example, the genus Victoria (a flowering waterplant) was named in honour of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. More recently, a species of lemur ( Avahi cleesei ) was named after the actor John Cleese in recognition of his work to publicize the plight of lemurs in Madagascar.

Non-profit ecological organizations may also allow benefactors to name new species in exchange for financial support for taxonomic research and nature conservation. A German non-profit organisation (gemeinnütziger Verein), BIOPAT - Patrons for Biodiversity has raised more than $450,000 for research and conservation through sponsorship of over 100 species using this model. [8] An individual example of this system is the Callicebus aureipalatii (or "monkey of the Golden Palace"), which was named after the Golden Palace casino in recognition of a $650,000 contribution to the Madidi National Park in Bolivia in 2005. [9]

The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) discourages this practice somewhat: "Recommendation 20A. Authors forming generic names should comply with the following ... (h) Not dedicate genera to persons quite unconcerned with botany, mycology, phycology, or natural science in general." [10]

History of species descriptions

Original title page of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae, published in 1735. Linne-Systema Naturae 1735.jpg
Original title page of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae , published in 1735.

Early biologists often published entire volumes or multiple-volume works of descriptions in an attempt to catalog all known species. These catalogs typically featured extensive descriptions of each species and were often illustrated upon reprinting.

The first of these large catalogs was Aristotle's History of Animals , published around 343 B.C. Aristotle included descriptions of creatures, mostly fish and invertebrates, in his homeland, and several mythological creatures rumored to live in far-away lands, such as the manticore.

In 77 A.D. Pliny the Elder dedicated several volumes of his Natural History to the description of all life forms he knew to exist. He appears to have read Aristotle's work, since he writes about many of the same far-away mythological creatures.

Toward the end of the 12th century, Konungs skuggsjá , an Old Norse philosophical didactic work, featured several descriptions of the whales, seals, and monsters of the Icelandic seas. These descriptions were brief and often erroneous, and they included a description of the mermaid and a rare island-like sea monster called Hafgufu. The author was hesitant to mention the beast (known today to be fictitious) for fear of its size, but felt it was important enough to be included in his descriptions. [11]

However, the earliest recognized species authority is Linnaeus, who standardized the modern taxonomy system beginning with his Systema Naturae in 1735. [12]

As the catalog of known species was increasing rapidly, it became impractical to maintain a single work documenting every species. Publishing a paper documenting a single species was much faster and could be done by scientists with less broadened scopes of study. For example, a scientist who discovered a new species of insect would not need to understand plants, or frogs, or even insects which did not resemble the species, but would only need to understand closely related insects.

Modern species descriptions

Formal species descriptions today follow strict guidelines set forth by the codes of nomenclature. Very detailed formal descriptions are made by scientists, who usually study the organism closely for a considerable time. A diagnosis may be used instead of, [13] or as well as [14] the description. A diagnosis specifies the distinction between the new species and other species. In recent times, new species descriptions have been made without voucher specimens, and this has been controversial. [15]

Rates of species description

According to the RetroSOS report, [16] the following numbers of species have been described each year since 2000.

YearTotal number of species descriptionsNew insect species described

See also

Related Research Articles

Linnaean taxonomy A rank based classification system for organisms

Linnaean taxonomy can mean either of two related concepts:

  1. the particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus, as set forth in his Systema Naturae (1735) and subsequent works. In the taxonomy of Linnaeus there are three kingdoms, divided into classes, and they, in turn, into orders, genera, and species, with an additional rank lower than species.
  2. a term for rank-based classification of organisms, in general. That is, taxonomy in the traditional sense of the word: rank-based scientific classification. This term is especially used as opposed to cladistic systematics, which groups organisms into clades. It is attributed to Linnaeus, although he neither invented the concept of ranked classification nor gave it its present form. In fact, it does not have an exact present form, as "Linnaean taxonomy" as such does not really exist: it is a collective (abstracting) term for what actually are several separate fields, which use similar approaches.
Taxonomy (biology) Science of naming, defining and classifying organisms

In biology, taxonomy is the scientific study of naming, defining (circumscribing) and classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics. Organisms are grouped into taxa and these groups are given a taxonomic rank; groups of a given rank can be aggregated to form a super-group of higher rank, thus creating a taxonomic hierarchy. The principal ranks in modern use are domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the founder of the current system of taxonomy, as he developed a system known as Linnaean taxonomy for categorizing organisms and binomial nomenclature for naming organisms.

Zoology is the branch of biology that studies the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems. The term is derived from Ancient Greek ζῷον, zōion, i.e. "animal" and λόγος, logos, i.e. "knowledge, study".

A genus is a taxonomic rank used in the biological classification of living and fossil organisms, as well as viruses, in biology. In the hierarchy of biological classification, genus comes above species and below family. In binomial nomenclature, the genus name forms the first part of the binomial species name for each species within the genus.

Binomial nomenclature System of identifying species of organisms using a two-part name

Binomial nomenclature, also called binominal nomenclature or binary nomenclature, is a formal system of naming species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, although they can be based on words from other languages. Such a name is called a binomial name, a binomen, binominal name or a scientific name; more informally it is also called a Latin name.

Taxon Group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms which have distinguishing characteristics in common

In biology, a taxon is a group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms seen by taxonomists to form a unit. Although neither is required, a taxon is usually known by a particular name and given a particular ranking, especially if and when it is accepted or becomes established. It is very common, however, for taxonomists to remain at odds over what belongs to a taxon and the criteria used for inclusion. If a taxon is given a formal scientific name, its use is then governed by one of the nomenclature codes specifying which scientific name is correct for a particular grouping.

Holotype The example of an organism used to describe its species

A holotype is a single physical example of an organism, known to have been used when the species was formally described. It is either the single such physical example or one of several such, but explicitly designated as the holotype. Under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), a holotype is one of several kinds of name-bearing types. In the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) and ICZN, the definitions of types are similar in intent but not identical in terminology or underlying concept.

<i>International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants</i> Code of scientific nomenclature

The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) is the set of rules and recommendations dealing with the formal botanical names that are given to plants, fungi and a few other groups of organisms, all those "traditionally treated as algae, fungi, or plants". It was formerly called the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN); the name was changed at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne in July 2011 as part of the Melbourne Code which replaced the Vienna Code of 2005.

Type (biology) Specimen(s) to which a scientific name is formally attached

In biology, a type is a particular specimen of an organism to which the scientific name of that organism is formally attached. In other words, a type is an example that serves to anchor or centralize the defining features of that particular taxon. In older usage, a type was a taxon rather than a specimen.

Botanical name Scientific name for a plant, alga or fungus

A botanical name is a formal scientific name conforming to the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) and, if it concerns a plant cultigen, the additional cultivar or Group epithets must conform to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). The code of nomenclature covers "all organisms traditionally treated as algae, fungi, or plants, whether fossil or non-fossil, including blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria), chytrids, oomycetes, slime moulds and photosynthetic protists with their taxonomically related non-photosynthetic groups ."

In taxonomy, a nomen nudum is a designation which looks exactly like a scientific name of an organism, and may have originally been intended to be a scientific name, but fails to be one because it has not been published with an adequate description. This makes it a "bare" or "naked" name, one which cannot be accepted as it stands. A largely equivalent but much less frequently used term is nomen tantum.

In zoological nomenclature, the specific name is the second part within the scientific name of a species. The first part of the name of a species is the name of the genus or the generic name. The rules and regulations governing the giving of a new species name are explained in the article species description.

In botanical nomenclature, author citation is the way of citing the person or group of people who validly published a botanical name, i.e. who first published the name while fulfilling the formal requirements as specified by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN). In cases where a species is no longer in its original generic placement, both the authority for the original genus placement and that for the new combination are given.

In zoological nomenclature, the valid name of a taxon is the sole correct scientific name. The valid name should be used for that taxon, instead of any other name that may currently be being used, or may previously have been used. A name name is valid when, and only when, it is in harmony with all the relevant rules listed in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). A valid name is the correct zoological name of a taxon.

Plant taxonomy is the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies, and names plants. It is one of the main branches of taxonomy.

A conserved name or nomen conservandum is a scientific name that has specific nomenclatural protection. That is, the name is retained, even though it violates one or more rules which would otherwise prevent it from being legitimate. Nomen conservandum is a Latin term, meaning "a name to be conserved". The terms are often used interchangeably, such as by the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants (ICN), while the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature favours the term "conserved name".


In zoology and botany, a paratype is a specimen of an organism that helps define what the scientific name of a species and other taxon actually represents, but it is not the holotype. Often there is more than one paratype. Paratypes are usually held in museum research collections.

The Botanical and Zoological Codes of nomenclature treat the concept of synonymy differently. In botanical nomenclature, a synonym is a scientific name that applies to a taxon that (now) goes by a different scientific name. For example, Linnaeus was the first to give a scientific name to the Norway spruce, which he called Pinus abies. This name is no longer in use: it is now a synonym of the current scientific name, Picea abies. In zoology, moving a species from one genus to another results in a different binomen, but the name is considered an alternative combination, rather than a synonym. The concept of synonymy in zoology is reserved for two names at the same rank that refer to a taxon at that rank - for example, the name Papilio prorsaLinnaeus, 1758 is a junior synonym of Papilio levanaLinnaeus, 1758, being names for different seasonal forms of the species now referred to as Araschnia levana(Linnaeus, 1758), the map butterfly. However, Araschnia levana is not a synonym of Papilio levana in the taxonomic sense employed by the Zoological code.

Undescribed taxon a taxon that has been discovered but not yet formally described and named

In taxonomy, an undescribed taxon is a taxon that has been discovered, but not yet formally described and named. The various Nomenclature Codes specify the requirements for a new taxon to be validly described and named. Until such a description has been published, the taxon has no formal or official name, although a temporary, informal name is often used. A published scientific name may not fulfil the requirements of the Codes for various reasons. For example, if the taxon was not adequately described, its name is called a nomen nudum. It is possible for a taxon to be "undescribed" for an extensive period of time, even if unofficial descriptions are published.

Taxonomic rank Level in a taxonomic hierarchy

In biological classification, taxonomic rank is the relative level of a group of organisms in a taxonomic hierarchy. Examples of taxonomic ranks are species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain, etc.


  1. Mora, C.; et al. (August 23, 2011). "How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?". PLoS Biology . 9: e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127. PMC   3160336 . PMID   21886479.
  2. "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Recommendation 25C" . Retrieved June 18, 2011.
  3. One example of an abstract of an article naming a new species can be found at Wellner, S.; Lodders, N.; Kampfer, P. (13 June 2011). "Methylobacterium cerastii sp. nov., isolated from the leaf surface of Cerastium holosteoides". International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. 62 (Pt 4): 917–924. doi: 10.1099/ijs.0.030767-0 . PMID   21669927. Archived from the original on 15 April 2013. Retrieved June 18, 2011.
  4. 1 2 "A beetle called Hitler". Rose George. 13 April 2002.
  5. Capinera, John L., ed. (2008). Encyclopedia of Entomology (2nd ed.). Dordrecht: Springer. p. 2765. ISBN   1402062427.
  6. Strahan, Ronald; Conder, Pamela, eds. (2007). Dictionary of Australian and New Guinean Mammals. Collingwood, Victoria: Csiro Publishing. p. 15.
  7. "Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature" . Retrieved June 18, 2011.
  8. "Financing conservation efforts by selling naming rights of new species" . Retrieved June 18, 2011.
  9. "Internet casino buys monkey naming rights". MSNBC . Retrieved 25 March 2019.
  10. ( McNeill et al. 2012 )
  11. Konungs skuggsjá (in Norwegian).
  12. Linnaeus, C. (1735). Systema Naturae .
  13. ( McNeill et al. 2012 , Article 38)
  14. International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (1999). "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Fourth Edition, adopted by the International Union of Biological Sciences". article 13
  15. Kannan, Ragupathy (2007). New Bird Descriptions Without Proper Voucher Specimens: Reflections After the Bugun Liocichla Case. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 104: 12-18. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/part/154730#/summary
  16. Quentin Wheeler; Sara Pennak (January 18, 2012). Retro SOS 2000-2009: A Decade of Species Discovery in Review (Report). International Institute for Species Exploration, Arizona State University. Retrieved April 25, 2013.


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