Latin Names

by Peggy Williams

In a classification system begun by Karl von Linnaeus in the 18th century, every known animal and plant (living and fossil) has a Latin name. The classification system begins at the broadest level (Kingdom = animal or plant) and moves down through Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, and finally Genus and Species, which make up the two-part (binomial) name of each plant or animal. You can remember these levels this way:

Kings (Kingdom) =animal

Play (Phyllum) =Mollusca

Chess (Class) =Gastropoda

On (Order) =Neogastropoda

Friday, (Family) =Muricidae

Generally (Genus) =Siratus

Speaking (Species) =beaui

This is the scientific, or Latin, name of the Sarasota Shell Club shell, the Beau's Murex, Siratus beaui. (Notice that the Latin is written in italics. The Genus is capitalized but the species is not.)

Following the Genus and species names we usually put the name of the author (the guy who named the shell) and the year in which he published the name. Thus,

Siratus beaui (Fischer & Bernardi, 1857)


The parentheses around the Author and Date indicate that the Genus has been changed since the author named the shell. The species never changes, but the shell may be found at a later date to belong to a different genus, even a different family of shells. The older the name, the more likely this is to have happened.


The oldest date we have for scientific names is 1758, the year ol' Karl first published and named hundreds of organisms of all kinds (not just shells). For a few years, other systems were tried, but finally Linnaeus' system prevailed.

Some organisms have been named more than once (even up to 30 times), especially if it is found in many areas around the globe. Then the oldest name is the one we use. Even today, older names are being turned up for some of our favorite shells - even though we don't want to call them by "new" names. Most authors today are very careful to research the literature before naming a new species.

What it Means

The shell can be named for anything at all: a characteristic of the shell, the area where it is found, a person the author wants to honor, or anything else that takes his fancy. There is a shell named Abra cadabra. In the case of "our" shell, it is named for a person named "Beau".

Examples of names for characteristics of shells are color (cinerea = gray; chryso-, auri- = gold), size (gigas, goliath, pygmaea), shape (obesa = fat; pagodula = pagoda-shaped), and sculpture (striatus = striated; granulatus, pustulatus = with little bumps). Since -stoma means mouth, chrysostoma means "gold mouthed". Sometimes these names are easy to figure out with a little thought, since the roots are the same in many English words.


Names that end in -ensis indicate a location: Cassis madigascariensis, for instance, was named for Madagascar, where the author (mistakenly) thought it had been found (it is actually from Florida and the Caribbean). Most names that end in i or -ii are named for a person (male - the female is -ae).

Names ending in -um, -us, or -a may change to another of those endings when the genus is changed. This is because they are gender-specific and must "agree" with the gender of the genus.

How to Say Them

Since no one today speaks Latin, and we don't really know how it was pronounced, you can pronounce Latin any way you want! However, most people agree that the vowels should mostly be "short" (ah, eh, ee, oh, oo) and the consonants "hard". Pronounce every letter and usually put the accent on the next-to-last syllable.

Latin names that are place's or people's names are pronounced as that name would be pronounced in its own language, plus the ending.

Though I know these "rules", I don't always follow them. I just say what sounds good to me!

Why Use Latin?

Though it seems that Latin names may be hard to learn, it is important to use them. What we call "common names" may vary from area to area, even within a country. A "Whelk" can be a Busycon (family Melongenidae, on the US East Coast), a Buccinum (family Buccinidae, in the Northeast US and England), a Cittarium (family Turbinidae, in the Caribbean), or any of several other shells depending on what area of the world you're in. Common names in Spanish, too, change from country to country.

Using Latin names makes for precision. Though you may pronounce it differently, once you have deciphered what a Frenchman called a shell in Latin, you can know precisely which species he is referring to.

To those who say, "It's too hard to learn all those Latin names," I say, "It depends on what you love." Put a teen-aged boy on a street corner and he can name every car's make, model and year as it passes him - because he's interested and motivated. If you really want to learn the names, you will!

"New" System Coming?

Naturally, the shells don't know what we call them; the classification system we use is purely arbitrary and is based on various characteristics of the organism as we see them. We group all the one-shelled mollusks in the Class Gastropoda, then all the ones that show other characteristics in common in smaller and smaller groups. But until we are able to study each animal's DNA we'll never know if they are as well-related as we think they are.

Scientists these days are looking for other ways to make classifications more meaningful. A system called "cladism" is being used more and more, but to me it's confusing and can be even more arbitrary than the Linnaean system we have been using for 250 years. It is doubtful that this system will be replaced in the near future!