Why do scientific names change?

It is difficult for some people to understand why taxa names change. People find that they go to the trouble of learning a whole set of Latinized names, and then a few years or decades later they check another respectable source, and... so many names have changed, some of them completely! Why?

This can seem arbitrary and annoying, but these changes are an attempt to reflect more accurately both the historical details of the naming of taxa (the nomenclature) and the increase in knowledge about the actual relationships between organisms (the taxonomy).

There are hundreds of reasons why a taxon name can change, but here are a few examples:

Nomenclature:

Sometimes a species name will change as a result of nomenclatural research, for example, because someone has discovered that there is an older, perfectly valid name, for the same taxon.

Taxonomy:

Ever since Darwin, the taxonomy of organisms is required to attempt to reflect their phylogeny -- in other words, how organisms are classified is supposed to represent their tree of descent.

Because of this...

Sometimes it is discovered that a species needs to be moved to another genus, or even to a brand new genus.

Sometimes a genus is broken up into many genera, as per the sea-snail genus "Conus".

Sometimes a family is broken up into many families, as per the sea-snail family "Turridae".

All these changes have good reasons behind them. We may not like the demands that all these changes put upon us, but basically we only have three choices...

  1. We can give up on the scientific names entirely, and use only common names, which have their own set of confusions.
  2. Or we can keep using the old scientific names and risk not being understood.
  3. Or we can make the effort to learn the new names.

Currently in biology, molecular research is leading to a lot of discoveries about taxa at every level, so a great number of taxonomic changes are resulting, and will continue to result from this.

Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy few decades!

Posted by susanhewitt susanhewitt, March 03, 2016 17:24

Observations

Photos / Sounds

Square

What

Apple Murex Phyllonotus pomum

Observer

susanhewitt

Date

May 22, 2015

Place

Nevis (Google, OSM)

Description

A very worn shell of this species, but a fairly large one.

Comments

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Great post, Susan! I certainly have done my fair share of lamenting over changed names (buh-by, Pollinices; buh-by and hullo again, Tegula) but I am glad to know that it is often our better understanding of how they fit into the grand evolutionary picture that prompts the change. I don't always understand cases of seemingly rapid succession of changes, as seemed apparent to me with the current Megastraea undosa, which shifted names (three times I think) during the short (in evolutionary time) period I was researching, writing, and publishing my graduate thesis which featured the Wavy Turban as a supporting character. It's hard to avoid the embarrassment of publishing the wrong name in those cases, although I suspect there is some level of forgiveness there.

Posted by gbentall over 4 years ago (Flag)
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Yes, I am sad when a much-loved name, one that rolls off the tongue easily, disappears... but I do try my best to re-learn all the new names and stay current.

And yes, everyone in the business understands that when a genus changes three times in less than 10 years, people are going to get caught using one of the older names. No big deal. :)

Posted by susanhewitt over 4 years ago (Flag)

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