How do critters get their scientific names, and what do they mean?

by B. N. Sullivan

Chromodoris vibrataIn most cases, the scientists who first identify a species, i.e., discover it and/or describe it in the scientific literature, get to choose a name for the species. Stories about why creatures were given a certain name always are interesting. Some names are obvious choices, others not so obvious -- at least to the casual observer.

In the obvious category are names that refer to a creature's geographic origin. It should not be difficult to guess the provenance of a creature with a name like Conus mediterraneus -- the Mediterranean cone shell. Ditto for Cyrpaea arabica -- the Arabian cowrie.

Some obvious names refer to a visible characteristic. For example, the scientific name of the Blue Dragon nudibranch, Pteraeolidia ianthina, refers to the critter's color. 'Ianthinus' means violet-blue in Latin.

Coloration is not the only feature a name can describe. Recently we posted a photo of the Lined Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lineolatus). As you can probably guess, lineolatus means 'lined' and refers to the pattern on the fish's flanks.

You also may recall our story about the mantis shrimp. The species featured in that tale was Odontodactylus brevirostris. The species name, brevirostris, means 'short-nosed'.

Less obvious than coloration or size are behaviors, at least to the casual observer. Yet it is not uncommon for a species name to reflect a behavioral characteristic of an animal. The scientific name of the nudibranch in the picture on this page is Chromodoris vibrata. If you guessed that the meaning of the species name vibrata has something to do with vibration, you would be absolutely correct. Like a lot of Chromodorids, this species of nudibranch has a habit of vibrating its little gills (that clump of feathery-looking structures near its tail end). The rapid wiggling of the gills presumably helps to increase oxygenation, by the way.

Sometimes creatures are named to honor an individual or group. For example, Commerson's Frogfish (Antennarius commerson) was named for Dr. Philibert Commer├žon, an 18th century French naturalist.

One of our favorite naming stories is that of the Gold Lace nudibranch (Halgerda terramtuentis). The species name, terramtuentis, means 'looking at the earth with care'. The scientists who first described the species gave it that name to honor a group of Earthwatch volunteers who had helped them with their research.


  1. Very interesting article. As a student, I often dream of finding new species. That would just top everything. Too bad that is pretty unlikely at this rate.

  2. Beautiful photo and interesting info.

  3. If I ever have the opportunity to name a species, I'm definitely using my name!

  4. @scienceguy - Who knows? Maybe you will be lucky enough to discover a new species one day.

    @Nevin Thank you.

    @AFM - Would that be something like Critterus chrisi? :-D


  5. Very interesting. I always learn something when I come here. I love it! :-)

  6. @2sweet Thanks for that comment. We're glad to know you're learning something new when you visit The Right Blue.

    @Bernie - Thank you very much!



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Bobbie & Jerry