What's in a name?

How do binomial scientific names help us understand biology?

Overview
How do scientists name a new species? The process is more complicated than you might think. There are approximately 1800 species of fossils at Florissant and millions of modern and fossil species on Earth and each needs a unique name. There are different sets of rules depending on whether you are naming a new plant, animal, or bacterium. Species names are always two words in Latin written in italics or underlined. The first word (the genus) is always capitalized and the second word is always in lowercase. For example, Fagopsis longifolia and Raphidia tumulata are both species names from Florissant. Common names, like oak or fly, can be easy to remember, but they are not the same everywhere. Sometimes two unrelated organisms can have the same common name.

In order to name a new species, a “type” specimen must be selected to define the unique characteristics of the species. This is done so that scientists can compare a newly found organism to the original type specimen to determine if it is a new species or one that has already been published. Type specimens are very important and are securely stored in museums. Most of the Florissant examples on this website are type specimens. Furthermore, species names can change after more scientific study! When this happens, there are rules that explain how to rename a specimen.

You might have noticed a “taxonomy” section listed under each specimen (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus). This displays the higher ranks or groups that a species falls into. Each species is a member of a genus—for example, Lithagrion is an extinct genus of damselflies found at Florissant. This genus is a member of a family Megapodagrionidae (commonly known as the flatwing family). This family is a member of the order Odonata—a group of carnivorous insects that includes both the dragonflies and the damselflies. Odonata is a member of the class Insecta. Insecta is a member of the phylum Arthropoda. The phylum Arthropoda—which includes spiders, centipedes, millipedes, crustaceans like shrimp and lobsters, and insects—belongs to the kingdom Animalia.

Taxonomy
Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Arthropoda
        Class: Insecta
            Order: Odonata
                Family: Megapodagrionidae
                    Genus: Lithagion

Topic In Depth
How do paleontologists name new species? It is a bit more complicated than one might think! Carolus Linnaeus founded the fields of taxonomy and nomenclature in the 1700s. Taxonomy or classification is the process of defining groups of organisms that share similar traits. Nomenclature is the field of naming a new genus or species. A group of organisms, such as a species, can also be referred to as a taxon (plural = taxa). Both taxonomy and nomenclature form the field of systematics.

Four codes of nomenclature provide rules and recommendations for naming the modern and fossil organisms on earth. There are separate codes or lists of rules for animals, bacteria, plants (including algae and fungi), and cultivated plants. The guide governing the naming of plants, algae, and fungi can be found here (http://www.iapt-taxon.org/nomen/main.php; International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants), whereas the guide governing the naming of animals can be found here (http://www.iczn.org/iczn/index.jsp; International Code of Zoological Nomenclature). The codes help provide a methodical and stable way to name taxa in order to ensure that there is only one standard name per taxon and that the name reflects a taxon’s accurate classification. The names are always binomials (two names) in Latin. Common names are not universal and are often ambiguous. It is possible for the same organism to have dozens of common names in different languages, alphabets, or in different geographic regions. By contrast, the same common name may be used to refer to unrelated organisms. Furthermore, common names can be misleading about an organism’s nearest relative. For example, “Spanish moss” is actually a flowering plant related to pineapples, not a moss at all!

So how do we develop a scientific name? In paleontology, the organism often represents a new species. Sometimes a new species does not fit in any modern or previously published genus, so a new genus must be established. Genera are singular nouns, in the nominative case, with a capitalized first letter, written in italics. A species name is always a binomial composed of the genus and the specific epithet. The specific epithet is written in lowercase, also in italics, directly after the genus. The epithet may be arbitrarily composed, but it must be in Latin. It can honor a person (e.g., Rosa hilliae, Typha lesquereuxi), indicate the country or locality in which the organism was found (e.g., Gyraulus florissantensis), or be a relevant descriptive adjective (e.g., Bursera serrulata). For example, Rosa hilliae was named after Charlotte Hill, a homesteader in Florissant, Colorado in the late 1800s who provided many fossil specimens to scientific researchers. Typha lesquereuxi was named after one of those researchers, Leo Lesquereux. The specific epithet “serrulata” in the species Bursera serrulata references that taxon’s serrate or toothed leaves. In the botanical code, the specific epithet cannot be the same as the genus (this is acceptable under the zoological code). There are additional recommendations in the codes, one of which is to avoid specific epithets that are long and difficult to pronounce. Although, only a few rules about naming a new genus or species are mentioned here, the code regulates names at all taxonomic ranks and both the botanical and zoological codes are over 200 pages long.

Once you have decided on a name following the rules of the applicable code, the new species has to be effectively and validly published to be considered legitimate. It must be in a printed or pdf formatted journal or book with an ISSN or ISBN number. The name can only be composed of letters of the Latin alphabet with proper grammatical formatting. A description or diagnosis is required as is the designation of a type specimen. A type specimen is a name bearing specimen (usually a single holotype), one that links the name to the taxon. A holotype should define or display the typical features of that species and is stored in a museum in order to be available for future scientific comparisons. Occasionally, the original author does not select a holotype, but instead lists multiple specimens in the description—these are referred to as syntypes. If another researcher later selects one of the syntypes to serve as the name-bearing specimen, it is referred to as a lectotype. In most cases, if you are naming a new species, an illustration or figure is required. There were less restrictive rules in the past, so many names that don’t meet the current guidelines (e.g., they were not illustrated in the original publications) have been “grandfathered” in. Finally, when needed, the codes also govern name changes.

Name changes
Species names are rarely static. New research or observation often warrants renaming a species to reflect the most recent understanding of its characteristics or relationship to other organisms.  Three examples of name changes involving Florissant specimens are listed below. However, on this website you will only find the most recent name for a specimen. If you are interested to view the previous names of a fossil specimen (if applicable), you can navigate to: http://planning.nps.gov/flfo/

Often a species is followed by the name of the person who first described it. This is called the authority. For example, in Acer florissanti Kirchner, Kirchner is the authority. If the species is transferred to a different genus in the future, the original authority will be placed in parentheses, followed by the new authors. For example, Lesquereux published Myrica copeana Lesq. in 1878. Later, in 1953, MacGinitie transferred this species to the genus Crataegus establishing the new combination of: Crataegus copeana (Lesq.) MacGinitie. In publications you may also see a list of scientific names and references after a name, these are usually specimens that have been synonymized into the most recent name. That is when a researcher determines that specimens previously published under a different name are the same as the new name or combination they are establishing. In general, if taxa with two different names are determined to be the same thing, the older name has priority.   
 
 
Some examples from Florissant
The fossil cone, catalog number USNM 34761, was initially described as Alnus sp. (alder), an angiosperm (flowering plant) in the Betulaceae or birch family, by Knowlton 1916. Later, after studying the characters of the fossil in more detail, MacGinitie (1953) placed it into Sequoia affinis (redwood), a conifer in the Cupressaceae or cypress family. In order to officially rename it, MacGinitie had to publish the name change following the rules outlined in the code.
 
Left: Cones of modern Alnus acuminata (Spruce 5155, Ecuador). Image from: https://www.kew.org/science/tropamerica/neotropikey/families/Betulaceae.htm. Right: Cones of modern Sequoia sempervirens. Image from: https://selectree.calpoly.edu/tree-detail/sequoia-sempervirens
 
Can you see why the cones from these two genera might be confused?
This fruit, catalog number UCM 5182, was initially described as Stipa laminarum, a grass in the Poaceae family, by Cockerell in 1908. This was later transferred to and re-published as Cercocarpus myricaefolous, a species in the Rosaceae or rose family, by MacGinitie in 1953. Fruits of Stipa are usually shorter and not as curved as this fossil.
 
 
A more complicated example is that of the fossil (catalog number) USNM 1642. This leaf was collected in the Florissant valley by local homesteader Charlotte Hill. It was first described by paleobotanist Leo Lesquereux in 1878 as Callicoma microphylla in the Saxifragaceae—this genus is now in the Cunoniaceae family. Lesquereux revised his own work in 1883 and transferred the specimen to Myrica callicomaefolia. Later, in 1916, Knowlton amended this to Myrica drymeja. Myrica, or bayberry, is a genus in the Myricaceae family. The name was changed to Zelkova drymeja by Brown in 1946 and reaffirmed as that taxon by MacGinitie in 1953. Most recently, leaves assigned to Zelkova have almost all been transferred over to the extinct genus Cedrelospermum (Manchester, 1989) in the Ulmaceae or elm family. Leaves of Cedrelospermum lineatum are very common in the shales of the Florissant Formation. 
 
Final Note
Remember: One can never just use a specific epithet to refer to a species. The full binomial with the genus name is the only correct way to refer to a species. For example, Palaeovespa florissantia or Proctacanthella pertulus are correctly formatted species names. Notice the genus is capitalized, the specific epithet is in lowercase and both are italicized or underlined.