Living creatures are classified into species, which are in turn classified into genera, families, orders, and higher (larger) groups. To date, approximately 1.9 million species have been discovered and named. This number is still an estimate as so far there is no central registration of species, although efforts are underway to establish such a species register. According to the opinion of taxonomic experts, the actual number of species existing on earth is between 3 and 100 million with a recent discovered method putting the number at 8.7 million.
New species are continually being discovered. In 2010, it is estimated that 18,225 new species were discovered and scientifically described (plus an additional 2,140 fossil species presumed extinct).
Naming of a new species
When a creature is discovered, it is first necessary to determine whether it is a new species, a new subspecies or merely a variant of an already described and known species. As there is no single, unambiguous definition of “species” this determination can be time-consuming and subject to discussion and disagreement.
By tradition, the right to name a new species is given to the discoverer, or more precisely the scientific describer of the species (who is not necessarily the person who discovered the species in nature). There are, however, many regulations to be followed when naming a species, all of them fixed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) when animals are concerned, or the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) for plants.
In general, the nomenclature of creatures follows a system established 1758 by Carl von Linné and each scientific species name is a composite of two parts, namely the genus name and the species name. For example, the scientific name of the European Common Frog is Rana temporaria, where Rana is the genus name and temporaria is the species name.
As the genus name should reflect relationships among different species within the same genus, the first attempt after each discovery is to allocate the creature to a respective genus (and the systematic categories of higher hierarchical levels). Thus in most cases, with exception of the discovery of new genera, the genus name is fixed already, whereas the species name may be freely chosen by the scientic describer of the species within the frame of the ICZN or ICBN regulations.
A name of a new species becomes valid with the date of publication of its formal scientific description. Once the discoverer/scientist has performed the necessary research to determine that the discovered creature represents a new and formerly undescribed species, the scientific results are summarized in a manuscript to be submitted to a scientific journal.
A scientific species description to establish a new species name must fulfill several formal criteria (e.g. selection of a so-called type specimen), fixed by the ICZN or ICBN. These criteria are designed to ensure that the species name is clear and unambiguous. The ICZN further 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."
It is a common misconception that species names must be expressed in Latin, or in Latinized English. While this is required in certain cases, it is not an absolute requirement. A species name must be expressed in the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, but many species names come from other languages - such as Erythroxylum coca, which is derived from the South American Quechua language. A species name need not even be a word from any language, provided that it is not confusing or unpronounceable. So "bazzungi" might be acceptable where "gtdkrf" would not.
Once the manuscript has been accepted for publication and printed, the new species name is officially created (and the new species officially existent).
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 after Adolf Hitler in 1933. It is not clear whether such a dedication would be considered acceptable or appropriate today, but the name remains in use.
Formation of species names
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, see List of organisms named after famous people).
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.
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 recently named after the actor John Cleese in recognition of his work to promote 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. This idea was first developed by Gerhard Haszprunar, a professor of systematic zoology at the University of Munich and director of the State Zoological Collection in Munich. It has since expanded worldwide through efforts by various non-profit and conservation organizations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Audubon Society, and Canada’s Nature Discovery Fund. 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.
Perhaps the best known individual example of this system is the Callicebus aureipalatii (or "monkey of the Golden Palace"), which was named after the Golden Palace organization in recognition of a $650,000 contribution to the Madidi National Park in Bolivia in 2005.
- Mora, C. et al. (August 23, 2011). "How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?". PLoS Biology.
- "Geology Global Network". Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Recommendation 25C". Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- One example of an abstract of an article naming a new species can be found at "Methylobacterium cerastii sp. nov., a novel species isolated from the leaf surface of Cerastium holosteoides". Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- "Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature". Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- "Financing conservation efforts by selling naming rights of new species". Retrieved June 18, 2011.
- "Online auction raises funds for Bolivian park". Retrieved June 18, 2011.