UK Species Inventory

Why Name Species?
Background to the UKSpecies project.[more]

Species Names
Origins of common and scientific names.[more]

Facts and figures about the project.[more]

More UK biodiversity resources.

Species assemblage

Naming Species

The recent history of both scientific and common names dates from around the publication of Species Plantarum by Linnaeus in 1753, which introduced the scientific method of naming species still in use today. The new system rekindled interest in Natural History and was soon followed by publication of the first English Floras. By this time most wild plants in the UK had consistent common names (a consequence of printing); infact many Linnaean names were simply latinicised versions of these, and where none existed, common names were often created directly from the new Latin name. This pioneering era produced a common and scientific nomenclature of exceptional correspondence, greatly simplifying interchange between the two systems.

Common and scientific names have subsequently diversified by a number of different processes. Common names in particular have suffered varying degrees of political correctness, from omission of inappropriate names (and those considered too vulgar for general use) to wholesale "stabilisation" aimed at reducing confusion. Many scientific names have been revised, often several times, on the basis of new taxonomic information. In such cases the similarity between the old and new names depends on a number of factors (see Synonyms and Precedence), but is often slight and may be non-existent.

Over time, common names often prove (unexpectedly) more resiliant to change than their Latin counterparts. Common names in historical documents (a good example is Calvert's Botanical List (1894) describing the natural history of Knaresborough) are, in the main part, highly recogniseable. In contrast, it requires a great deal of detective work to link many of the Latin names with their modern counterparts.

The mechanisms by which common and scientific names are derived are examined in more detail in the following sections.

Species assemblage

1. Origins of Common Names

The everyday names that we use for animals, plants and fungi form a rich part of our heritage. Their early origins are often uncertain, being deeply rooted in language development, herbal knowledge and folklore. Early references to fauna and flora in manuscripts are also often imprecise, leaving some doubt as to the identity of the species being referred to, and the limited information available (much of it derived from herbalists) allows only a very cursory categorisation of modern names.

Historical names - probably incorporated as part of language development:

eg. Badger, Ermine, Charr, Wren

These mainly relate to larger and more conspicuous species.

Descriptive names - generally emphasise dominant features:

eg. Orange Tip, Snakelocks Anemone, Yellow Rattle, Black Brain Fungus

Descriptive names may also include fanciful interpretations:

eg. Love-in-a-mist, Lousy Watchman, Painted Lady, King Alfred's Cake

comparisons with everyday items:

eg. Lungwort, Navelwort, Lawyer's Wig, Codlins and Cream

and may describe habits or habitat:

eg. Bacon Beetle, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, Apple Leaf Skeletoniser, Butcher-bird

Geographical names - often denote a restricted distribution:

eg. Scilly Shrew, Plymouth Pear, Bristol Whitebeam, London Rocket

Recently-introduced species may be prefixed by country of origin:

eg. Himalayan Balsam, Japanese Dogwood, American Mink, Chinese Mitten Crab

Herbal (medicinal) names - allude to supposed healing properties:

eg. Clary (clear-eye), Coughwort, Goutweed, Feverfew

(Many seemingly herbal names are infact descriptive, being based on appearance rather than properties; eg. Pilewort)

Folklore names - mainly describe traditional applications or figures:

eg. Dyer's Greenweed, Arsmart, Fleabane, Mother Shipton

Taxonomic names - anglicised versions of latin names (usually genus):

eg. Azalea, Chrysanthemum, Happy-medium (Epimedium), Bolete

Often (but not exclusively) used for introduced species, where no common name exists. Confusion may arise if taxonomy is subsequently revised;

eg. Yellow Azalea (Azalea pontica) is now grouped with Rhododendrons (Rhododendron luteum).

Foreign names - sometimes adopted for unnamed introduced or occasional species:

eg. Pirri-pirri Bur, Bobolink, Ake-ake, Shasta Daisy

Honorary names - used in tribute to discoverer or other notables:

eg. Bourguignat's Slug, Pallas's Warbler, Berkeley's Earthstar, Wautier's Limpet.

The lack of useful information makes such names poor alternatives even to Latin names.

A scan through any list emphasises the vivid imagery of many common names - it is difficult to forget the name of an Orange Tip butterfly or Snakelocks anemone after your first encounter. Remembering Anthocharis cardamines or Anemonia viridis is a different matter ...

Further Information

Flora Celtica. People and Plants in Celtic Europe.
Calvert's Botanical List (1894). The History of Knaresbrough.
A Modern Herbal. First published in 1931, by Mrs. M. Grieve.

Species assemblage

2. Etymology of Scientific (Latin) names

Scientific names appear more complicated than necessary because they are in Latin. Using a "dead" language to describe living organisms appears an unnecessary complication; however this complexity occurs by design, to ensure that the meanings of scientific names do not change with time. Infact scientific names follow a precise set of rules, and once the underlying concepts are understood they are as easy to use as common names.

The exact structure of botanical and zoological names differ slightly: rules describing former are formalised in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), the latter in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The standardisation helps prevent confusion when referring to the species.

Scientific names: Binomial Classification

All recognised species are given a unique scientific name, based on the binomial classification system pioneered by Linnaeus. Species names comprise two components: the group (genus) to which the species belongs and specific name (epithet). For example, Quercus alba (White Oak); Quercus is the genus name for oaks, alba (latin for 'white') describes one particular species of oak.

Scientific names are always written according to a strict convention:

  • The genus is capitalised
  • The specific epithet is lowercase
  • Both components must always be used when describing species
    (genus may be abbreviated to a single letter after first use)
  • Scientific names are italicised or underlined


Lepus timidus - Mountain or Snow Hare
Mycena adonis - Coral-pink Bonnet fungus
Colias croceus - Clouded Yellow butterfly
Agrostis stolonifera - Creeping Bent-grass

Subspecies, Varieties, Forms and Hybrids

Some species exhibit a high degree of variability across their range, although not sufficient to prevent interbreeding. These characteristics may be recognised as distinct subspecies, varieties or forms (see Glossary for definitions) in which case a third name is appended to the scientific name, sometimes separated from the binomial name by an appropriate abbreviation. Hybrids also occur between species: these are designated by an 'x', generally between the genus and specific epithet.

Subspecies exhibit characteristics that vary from the typical species type, usually due to geographical isolation.

eg. Lepus timidus ssp. hibernicus
[Irish Hare, a subspecies of the Mountain Hare.]

Varieties also differ significantly from the species type for other reasons, often related to ecology.

eg. Mycena adonis var. coccinea
[Scarlet Bonnet fungus, a bright-red variety of Coral-pink Bonnet.]

Forms are minor differences in individuals, often in colour.

eg. Colias croceus frm. helice
[A pale form of the (female) Clouded Yellow butterfly.]

Hybrids are crosses between two different species.

The most common type of hybrid (A x B) occurs between two species in the same genus (interspecific hybrids).

eg. Agrostis x murbeckii
[Bent-grass hybrid, a cross between the Creeping Bent-grass (Agrostis stolonifera) and Common Bent-grass (Agrostis capillaris).]

A less common form of hybrid (x A B) occurs from crossing two species in different genera (intergeneric hybrids).

eg. x Agropogon littoralis
[A hybrid species known as Perennial Beard-grass, a cross between Creeping Bent-grass (Agrostis stolonifera) and Annual Beard-grass (Polypogon monspeliensis).]

Both types of hybrid may occur naturally or artificially.


Scientific names are generally followed by the name of the person (Author) who originally described the species and the year in which this occurred. If the species has been reclassified into a different genus than it was originally described, the authors name is parenthesised, and the followed by the name of the author describing the revision.

The Author's name is not underlined or italicized. Names of widely known Authors may be abbreviated (eg. L. for Linnaeus).

Lepus timidus L.
Lepus timidus ssp. hibernicus Bell, 1837
Agrostis x murbeckii Fouill. ex P.Fourn.

Synonyms and Precedence

Sometimes a new species is described and named by two or more independent authors, often in different countries, at around the same time. In such cases the first published name assumes precedence and alternative names are termed synonyms. Several other mechanisms generate synonyms:

  • A species is reclassified into a new genus or family on the basis of new taxonomic information (Nomenclatural synonym).
  • New taxonomic information determines that what has long been considered to be two separate species are infact identical (Taxonomic synonym).
  • New taxonomic information determines that a group that has long been considered to be subspecies or variety is infact a separate species (Taxonomic synonym).

Synonyms may resemble each other if the revisions occur within a genus (eg. Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid: Dactylorhiza traunsteineri, Dactylorhiza lapponica). However if a species is moved to a different genus the degree of resemblance can range from low (eg. Painted Lady: Cynthia cardui, Vanessa cardui) to non-existent (eg. Wood Calamint: Clinopodium menthifolium, Calamintha sylvatica).

A further minor inconvenience associated with synonyms is that the gender of the species epithet must agree with that of the genus to which it belongs. This may cause spelling to change slightly if a species is moved to a new genus.

eg. reclassification of 'Wild Chamomile' from the genus Chamaemelum to Anthemis (both groups of Chamomiles).

Chamaemelum nobile (feminine)
Anthemis nobilis (masculine)

Synonyms form an important element of scientific names: it is impossible to retrospectively change species names in published literature, so searching for synonyms is often the only possible way to trace early descriptions of a species.

Species assemblage

3. Species Classification

No description of scientific names would be complete without mentioning the classification system into which binomial names fit. The genus and specific epithet of scientific names denote the fine-scale position of a species in the classification of all (living and extinct) organisms.

The basis of classifying species relies on using structural and (more recently) genetic similarities to group organisms according to common ancestry. Several classification schemes occur based on different interpretations of relationships; indeed classification systems are revised fairly frequently, particularly as a result of the extraordinary advances in molecular and DNA studies in recent years. A commonly used scheme is:

Kingdom Five kingdoms are usually recognised (Protoctista,Monera,Fungi,Plants,Animals)
Phylum This is termed Division in the plant kingdom.
Family Highest group commonly used in Species classification (generally small enough to distinguish members).
Family names for animals end in -idae, for plants in -aceae.
Genus Highest group directly referred in scientific name.
Species Epithet in scientific name.
Subspecies, Varieties, Forms, etc All groups below Species will interbreed if isolating factors are removed.

A number of further taxonomic sub-divisions (eg. superfamily, suborder, tribe) may be used to denote finer-scale groupings.

Species assemblage

Further Information

The Need for Classification Anonymous.
Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature. Mark Isaak, 1970. Species assemblage