The Zoology Museum

Animals named after Aberdeen Biologists

Go straight to the list of biologists and their animals.

Background information

After 3 billion years of evolution, millions of different kinds of organisms now exist. If we are to talk about them and to study them, then it is important that each has its own name.

From the earliest times, man has grouped organisms into basic, everyday, units; e.g. oaks, cats and pigs. As time went on, and scholarship emerged, these units began to be called Genera (singular, Genus), and by the time of the Middle Ages, their names were being written in Latin. Thus oaks were placed in the Genus Quercus, cats in Felis and pigs in Sus.

What should we call the different kinds of organisms that make up a genus? E.g. the different kinds of cats?

Before 1750, scholars simply added a series of descriptive terms to the name of a Genus when they wanted to refer to a single member (species) of a Genus. If someone thought they had found a new kind they simply added on another descriptive term.

These strings of up to 15 words were known as polynomials. The honey bee, for example, eventually carried the name Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine ciliatis.

honey bee
Honey bee

Not only were these names profoundly cumbersome, they were also imprecise since any scholar could change them as they saw fit. The result was anarchy and chaos.

The Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) offered a solution to naming organisms that we still use to this day.

Linnaeus aimed to catalogue all known organisms and to do so he initially used the polynomial system. However, from 1750 onwards he also included in his catalogues short-hand names consisting of just two words. Under this new binomial system the honey bee was to be known simply as Apis mellifera.

The binomial system uses the Genus together with a specific epithet to uniquely describe a species. These names are Latin or Greek in origin. For example our own species is called Homo sapiens where Homo is the Latin word for “man” and the epithet sapiens means “wise”.

Usually the name given to a species is in some way descriptive of that species. The cougar, for example is placed in the Genus Felis with the other cats and is given the descriptive specific epithet concolor, meaning same-coloured. In contrast, the brightly coloured African wild dog, the only member of the Genus Lycaon, is given the specific epithet pictus which means painted.


Felis concolor


Lycaon pictus

Sometimes, however, taxonomists name a newly discovered species after a biologist whom they wish to honour for their contributions to science. They do this by using a Latinised version of the biologist's name as the specific epithet, or, more rarely, as the Genus.

A number of zoologists from Aberdeen University have been honoured in this way. Click on the octopus Grimpoteuthis boylei, named after Peter Boyle, to read more:

Grimpoteuthis boylei