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Desert Diary
Biology/Scientific Names


Spermophilus variegatus! Sound like a foreign language? Of course—this is the scientific name of the Rock Squirrel, and scientific names are Latinized. Since Latin is a "dead" language, national pride isn't involved, and all scientists utilize it as a standard in naming species. A unique, official name for each organism makes a great deal of sense—one name everyone can understand instead of the scores of common names in various languages.

Why a two-part name for one organism? The first word tells us the larger group it belongs to—it's the name of a genus, a grouping of closely related species. The second part is an adjective telling us which species of the genus. For example, there are many kinds of ground squirrels belonging to the genus Spermophilus. There is only one of these that is Spermophilus variegatus—literally, in English, the variegated seed-lover.

Conventionally, species names are set in different type, and in zoology, the second part of the name is never capitalized. Care to peruse your local newspaper and see how much biology your reporters know?
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

scientific names abstract


Mitchell, L. G., J. A. Mutchmor, and W. D. Dolphin. 1988. Zoology. Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Co., Inc., Menlo Park, CA. 862 pp + appendices + index.