Tuesday, 15 November 2005

What is in a name?

As I opened the door the night before last, I was delighted to see a small beetle scurry in across the threshold. Metallic blue in colour and roughly a centimetre in length, I recognised it as Leistus spinibarbis, a ground beetle that I had first learnt to identify several years ago thanks to the tutorage of Brian Eversham and Mark Telfer. There is nothing particularly special about Leistus spinibarbis; it is not rare but enjoys a distribution that takes it from Britain, across Europe and into Africa. What is interesting, though, is that this species lacks a common name. Like virtually all of the other 360 or so ground beetles found in Britain and Ireland (and the vast majority of invertebrates worldwide) it is known simply by its scientific name.

Scientific names form the basis by which species are classified. They are necessary because the names given to individual species must be understood across the World. As such, they represent a common language by which researchers in different countries can be sure that they are referring to the same species. The application of scientific names is governed by an international code to which the naming of newly discovered species must adhere. The name Leistus spinibarbis follows what is known as the binomial system, first applied by the naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Under this system, the scientific name consists of two components: the first (Leistus) referring to the genus (a taxonomic subdivision of a family) and the second to the species (spinibarbis). There are five other closely related species of Leistus in Britain, all belonging to the same genus but each with its own individual species name.

Many people find scientific names off-putting, not least because they can be cumbersome in their construction. Try getting your tongue around Scybalicus oblongiusculus (another ground beetle)! The use of ‘common’ or vernacular names, like ‘blackbird’ or ‘robin’, is a good compromise but these only tend to work within a single country since they are intrinsically linked to the local language and culture. Having two parallel systems usually works fine and, as research and writer, I use both, switching between the two depending on audience. However, the lack of a common name may deter people from becoming more acquainted with a species. Understandably, if you are uncomfortable with the name of a species, then you are less likely to take a more detailed interest in it. This is unfortunate, particularly in the case of Leistus spinibarbis, which is superbly adapted for feeding on springtails. It’s jaws have a wide flange running along the edge, something that Mark Telfer suggested would suit a common name like ‘Blue Flange-mouth’. Maybe having such a name would help raise the profile of this delightful little beetle.

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