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How to Name a Species - Taxonomy and Why it is Important


You may have seen in the news or on the Colbert Report that I am a biologist that has the amazing opportunity and privilege of naming new species of spiders.  I just recently named a spider after the Canadian rock singer Neil Young. This story was featured by Reuters, The Associated Press, and a number of other news sources like msnbc) and was also picked up by Stephen Colbert in “Who’s not honoring me now – Science”.  Just recently, on the show, I have offered to name a spider for Stephen (June 24th).

While all of this is great fun, naming species is part of the important work done by a special group of biologists referred to as taxonomists.  Taxonomy is the science of describing and classifying new species of living organisms (like spiders).  There are over 1 million species of animals described but many more await discovery.  As many of you may know our planet’s climate appears to be undergoing some major changes as a consequence of the actions by our species, humans.  This is already having a tremendous impact on the earth’s biodiversity as many species find themselves on the brink of extinction or have recently gone extinct.  Although people often find the more charismatic creatures like polar bears, sea turtles, and owls to be of special interest, it is really the small things that run the world’s ecosystems and provide to us what biologists characterize as essential ecosystem services.  These services are invaluable to our planet and to us because many organisms like spiders, insects, bacteria, plant, fungi, and other animal species are directly and/or collectively responsible for our clean air, clean water, food crops, nutrient cycling, medicines, etc.   

While discovering a new species is very exciting, describing it is very hard, often expensive work.  Many taxonomists spend lots of time in the field collecting specimens and then even more time in the lab properly documenting the physical, genetic, behavioral, and biogeographical features of the plants and animals they study.  A strict set of rules called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature governs how an animal species must be described for the name to be considered valid (accepted by the scientific community).  Once a species is properly described and published that name becomes a permanent part of the scientific record; in fact we recognize names dating back to the early works of Carl Linnaeus (the father of modern taxonomy) from 1758.  Although you may find it surprising that a taxonomist could name a spider after Neil Young, Stephen Colbert, or even his or her spouse (see Apomastus kristenae Bond 2004 – a spider named for my wife) we can choose whatever name we like as long as we follow the rules.  Sometimes we choose names that reflect the physical features of the animal, where the animal is from, or we choose to name the animal for someone that is special to us – perhaps the person collected it or maybe we think they should be honored forever for some special deed or work they have done.

Thanks for taking the time to read this information and for taking an interest in taxonomy.  Most of my work at present is supported through grants by the National Science Foundation (taxpayer dollars) and consequently this has been a great opportunity to connect with the public and to generate some excitement about basic taxonomy and systematics.

If you are interested in having a spider named after you, visit www.ecu.edu/biology/spidernaming.cfm for more information.


Cheers, Jason

Dr. Jason E. Bond
Associate Professor of Biology, East Carolina University