What shall I call thee?

Fungi by Carl Linnaeus

I just love names. I love applying monikers to plants, animals, inanimate objects, pieces of art, actions, dance moves, stories and poetry, colors, etcetera. I used to want to design my own line of cosmetics just so I could name the products–when I was fifteen, I had an idea for a nail polish collection inspired by bowling balls…but I digress.

What I want to talk about is taxonomy. Taxonomy is the classification of things; in biology, this is about understanding how one species relates to other species, which leads to finding a position for them within the tree of life and ensures that they are properly named. Humans tend to come up with systems that help us organize the things we find around us and it is convenient to have something consistent to call these things so we can effectively communicate about them.

Scientific names use Latin to create helpful uniformity, though some names have Greek roots too. For example, a person from Vietnam can say Helianthus annus to a Colombian and both can feel confident that they are referring to the well-known North American sunflower. ‘Sunflower’ is what we refer to as it’s common name–these kinds of names are dangerous and tricky because they could refer to anything that a person thinks is a sunflower, which might not be anything close to the species you imagine when you think of a sunflower. According to Wikipedia, there are 38 species of native perennial sunflowers in North America alone, so you can imagine that without a specific name, we could be talking about very different plants. This makes a big difference in the larger picture–say, if you wanted to eat something or use it as medicine, you’d need to be certain you’re ingesting the right plant or fungi (considering some are rather poisonous and could potentially kill you).

Carl Linneaus; gap.entclub.org

Binomial nomenclature was invented by Carl Linneaus. He invented this standard naming system because it was such a confusing jumble otherwise. Let me break it down for you: the whole name includes two parts–1) a genus and 2) a species, in that order. Though it comes first, the genus is like your last name–other people in your family share it, indicating that you’re related. You also have your own unique first name, which is analogous to the species name (unless you’re a junior, in which case I’m not talking about you). This two name system makes it easier to talk about plants, animals, fungi–even bacteria have scientific names. As humans, in our current evolutionary form, we are called Homo sapiens. You might notice that I’ve italicized every Latin name and capitalized only the first letter of the genus, which is the correct way to type it. When handwritten, you simply underline the name.

To get even more legit, when you write common names, they are not capitalized unless they contain a proper noun, such as Williamson’s sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) vs. yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius); this subject is debated within the scientific community but it is how I was taught as a botanist/writer by a botanist/writer and I will adhere to it until someone provides me with sound reasoning otherwise.

Listen to a brief and amusing episode of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ about naming species with Robert Krulwich:

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=94886658&m=94953486&t=audio

It is important to note that this somewhat reductionist branch of science is not the only legitimate system for naming things. There is immense value in the taxonomies used by indigenous communities, where the names allow them to communicate details about the species they interact with to a degree in which scientific names fall quite short. This article describes just that: Endangered languages encode plant and animal knowledge

Lichens are special because they are not one single organism, as they may appear to the naked eye. Upon closer inspection, we find that they are a partnership of fungi, algae or cyanobacteria and bacteria, which are not normally related to each other. Because these species join forces and operate as if they were one, and since they look very different in their partnership than in their individual forms, lichens are often referred to as a singular organism. It’s confusing, huh?! We could think of them as a tiny ecosystem or we could look at them as a composite individual, like we do a sunflower. Either way, we need to be able to identify them by a tidy little name so we go with the conventional binomial nomenclature, which is based on the fungal partner (aka–the mycobiont). Only 3 percent of the algal species (photobionts) that become the lichens we know and love have been identified, so this kind of makes sense.

Read more about this conundrum here in an essay on the names of lichens by Trevor Goward, who is a prominent lichenologist.

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