What's in a name?

Find out more about common names vs the binomial nomenclature system.

What's in a name?

Article and images by Dr Julie O’Connor, senior conservation partnerships officer, Sunshine Coast Council

In January 1758 Swedish naturalist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus, published the 10th edition of Systema Naturae...

The full title of this edition translates to “System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characters, differences, synonyms, places.” That particular edition was significant because it was the starting point for the binomial nomenclature that we use today to classify species.

Common names of species might be easier to get your tongue around, but the problem is that they can and do vary between regions and countries. For example, “blue bonnet” may be easier to say than Northiella haematogaster, but confusion can arise when the bird is also known as bullock parrot, red-bellied blue bonnet, yellow-vented blue bonnet, little blue bonnet, Naretha parrot, red-vented blue bonnet and pallid blue bonnet.

So you can see how an internationally accepted and monitored classification system can be far less confusing in the long run.

For the most part, the binomial nomenclature system can also make it easy to look at the scientific name of a species and figure out some of the physical or behavioural features it might have. For example (images of these described species can be viewed below):

  • Pacific black duck – named Anas superciliosa from the Greek anas ‘duck’ and the Latin supercilium ‘eyebrow’. The Pacific black duck has a distinctive cream brow above each eye
  • Australasian grebeTachybaptus novaehollandiae. Tachy ‘fast’ and baptus ‘sink’, in reference to the grebe’s capacity to disappear very quickly into the water column when foraging or escaping from danger
  • Crested pigeonOcyphaps lophotes from the Greek oxy ‘sharp’ and phaps ‘dove’ in reference to the pointed crest on its head
  • Black-browed albatrossThalassarche melanophris from the Greek thallasa ‘sea’, archeo ‘ancient’; and melas ‘black’ or ‘dark’ and the Greek ophrys ‘eyebrow’
  • Gentoo penguinPygoscelis papua from the Greek puge rump and s kelos leg. This is in reference to the wide tail that brushes the ground almost like a third leg
  • Australian white ibis, also known as the sacred ibis – Threskiornis molucca from the Greek threskos ‘religious’ and ornis ‘bird’. The sacred ibis has long held a place of reverence in ancient human cultures.

The scientific names of frogs can also give clues about the animal’s appearance or behaviour. For example, if you have ever tried to pinpoint the location of a calling tusked frog, Adelotus brevis, you will know why it was named Adelotus ‘unseen.’ Others have been given grand names like the striped marsh frog, Limnodynastes peroniiLimnodynastes means ‘lord of the marshes’ and _peronii_ after French zoologist Francois Peron.

As you can see from the above examples, most scientific names applied by the discoverers of the species are quite informative. But sometimes, researchers obviously just want to have fun. For example, when entomologist Terry Erwin described and named several hundred species of Amazonian beetles in the Agra genus he included Agra cadabraAgra vation, and Agra phobia.

Sometimes, species get named after famous people on the basis of …well, anything really. For example, Terry Erwin, who must by now have been running out of names for the Agra genus, named one of his beetles Agra katewinsletae in a slightly nebulous reference to the actress’ role in Titanic. More recently, Bryan Lessard named a Queensland species of horse fly, Scaptia beyonceae, after the famous performer, Beyonce. Lessard announced it was “the unique dense golden hairs on the fly’s abdomen that led me to name this fly in honour of the performer.” Hmmm…

If the famous namesakes of some of these species placed any stock in how high their animal sat on the trophic ladder, some of them might have been disappointed. For example, actor John Cleese was apparently thrilled to lend his name to an adorable endangered lemur, Avahi cleesei, but I wonder whether Bob Marley would have been just as delighted to be named after the small piscine parasite Gnathia marleyi?

And in case you were wondering, yes, someone has named a species after US President Donald Trump. In 2018, the sustainable building material company, EnviroBuild, paid US$25,000 for the naming rights of Demorphis donaldtrumpi. The naming of the almost blind burrowing amphibian was an overt swipe at the President’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and his belief that climate change is a hoax. See what you can achieve with a sense of humour and a spare $25,000!


  • Becker, Isaac, “Blind, burrowing amphibian species named after Donald Trump for a special reason”, Washington Post, 19 Dec 2018
  • Fraser, I. and Gray, J. 2013. Australian Bird Names: A complete guide, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria
  • Lederer, R. and Burr, C. 2014. Latin for Bird Lovers, Timber Press, London
  • Robinson, M. 1993. A Field Guide to Frogs of Australia, Reed Books, NSW.