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How do scientists describe a new species?

It’s not unusual to come across a report of a newly discovered species while flicking through the newspaper or listening to the local news. Those that are named after famous people even make it to the international media - such as the new species of horsefly, Scaptia beyonceae, named after the singer Beyoncé, which made headlines a few years ago! Whether it’s the Hitler beetle, Anophthalmus hitleri, or the Trump moth, Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, perhaps you’ve wondered what qualifies a species as new to science and how they get their interesting, or not so interesting, names?

Well, when an expert finds what they think is a previously unknown species, they begin comparing the appearance, and sometimes also the genetic makeup, with the other known species to determine if it is indeed new to science. Once they are sure of their discovery, a thrilled “eureka” is not enough. They need to publish their findings in a scientific paper as a written record of their discovery. These published records act as reference material for other researchers, and future species identification and comparison.

The species must also be named, following certain rules of nomenclature. Naming after a famous person is one example of a permissible way to name a species. Usually, these names are in Latin or Latinised from other languages, so Beyoncé, for example, becomes beyonceae. Names can be in recognition of a benefactor, such as Queen Victoria, who has an entire genus of water lilies named after her, or in honour of someone’s contribution to a particular field, such as science or music. Naturally, the eminent naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, has not one but several species named after him, ranging from tiny grasshoppers, Electrotettix attenboroughi, to giant, extinct marine reptiles called plesiosaurs from the genus Attenborosaurus.

One of the requirements of describing a new species is finding a home for the specimens used in the identification process and making that home address public for anyone who wants to study the species or describe new ones. This home is officially always a museum and the address is a number or ID that the museum assigns to the specimens. The museum cares for, protects and makes the specimens available for future research.

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Image: Fossil remains of the extinct leatherback turtle with an interesting scientific name, Psephophorus terrypratchetti, named after the novelist Terry Pratchett. By Otago Museum 2018.

When you next visit Otago Museum, don’t forget to take a look at the fossils of the extinct leatherback turtle, Psephophorus terrypratchetti, on display in the Southern Land, Southern People gallery for an example of a species with an interesting name. This one is named after the novelist Terry Pratchett!