Written by Madeleine Barnes, Transforming Lives Trainee
The scientific names of species seem incomprehensible to many people – but peeling back just one layer of confusion reveals how simple they can be to understand. Despite commonly being called ‘Latin names’ due to the prevalence of Latin-based words and a limit of only using the 26 Latin characters, scientific names can actually be made with any language and can even be complete nonsense. Typically, the names describe a species physically, but may also be the names of people or even simply be jokes (see the frog genus Mini).
The first international rules for naming animals were established in the “International Rules on Zoological Nomenclature” published in 1905. Each scientific name is a binomial name, meaning they are composed of 2 parts: the genus and species of the animal. They are always written in the format Genus species, with an added subspecies for a trinomial name if necessary.
Here are the scientific names of some of the species Froglife protects, and their meanings:
- Common Frog – Rana temporaria
Translated directly from Latin as ‘temporary frog’, this name refers to how frogs seem to be absent during the colder months.
- Great Crested Newt – Triturus cristatus
‘Triturus’ is Neo-Latin (Renaissance-era Latin) derived from the name “Triton”, a Greek god of the sea. In Latin, ‘crista’ means “plume on a helmet” or “tuft on an animal’s head” (typically referring to chickens), which describes the eponymous Great Crest on these male newts.
- Grass Snake – Natrix helvetica
From the Latin ‘natrix’, meaning “water snake” – grass snakes are often spotted on water due to their preferred diet of amphibians. In Neo-Latin, ‘helvetica’ means “Swiss”, referring to this snake’s prevalence in central Europe.
NOTE: the barred grass snake was reclassified in 2017 from its previous classification as a subspecies of Natrix natrix, due to genetic testing marking it as a distinct species.
- Adder – Vipera berus
‘Vipera’ is a contraction of the Latin ‘vivus’ (alive) and ‘parere’ (to deliver), indicating a snake that gives birth to live young. ‘Berus’ is a misspelling of the Latin ‘verus’, meaning “true” or “authentic” – this could refer to the adder’s reputation as a historical staple of Europe.
- Slow-Worm – Anguis fragilis
Being a legless lizard, ‘anguis’ rather confusingly means “snake” in Latin – 1758 Linnaeus was clearly deceived by their snake-like appearance. ‘Fragilis’ means “fragile”, describing the way in which slow-worms drop their tails when in danger.
To learn more about the rules regarding naming animal species, access the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature online: https://www.iczn.org/the-code/the-code-online/