Life Science Blog

A Rose is a Rose, Except When it’s Called Something Else

Scientists love to name species – often more than once

October 7, 2010

What’s in a name? Well, not much, but what really matters is that we all know what the name is.  So I’m always Rose, Madonna is always Madonna and you’re always… well, whoever you are.  Unfortunately, in science, names aren’t always a given.  Thousands of species are known by several scientific names.

A recent story in New Scientist points to the lemon-scented basil plant as an example of what can go wrong when species names aren’t standardized.  The plant has been named five different times.  Researchers who think they’re working with two different plants, are unaware of a good portion of the research being done on their species.

This problem is extremely common, and combating it requires a lot of detective work.  Scientists recently whittled down a list of over a million flowering plants and found 480,000 cases of duplicate names.

This naming project is a collaboration between Kew Gardens in London and Missouri Botanical Gardens in the United States.  They plan to release “The Plant List,” later this year.

Of course, plants are not the only ones who are masters of multiple monikers.  My favorite example of duplicate names is the Breadcrumb Sponge, which not only has been named 56 different times (check out the “AKA” section), but whenever it pops up it is always described as smelling like “exploded gunpowder.”  When a sponge with such a distinguishing feature can be classified multiple times, no species is safe.  Well, maybe Madonna is.

About the Author

Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.S. in ecology and a minor in writing. She spent the last four years there poking around in labs, studying krill, climbing trees, riding bikes and perfecting her fish doodles. A sucker for being lost in strange places, she recently wandered her way through Costa Rica, Portugal, Tokyo and Bonaire and is excited to take her wandering to the epicenter of strange places, New York City.


1 Comment

Khalil A. says:

Wow. Not too surprising that species have multiple names but a list 480,000 duplicate names! Phew.

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