Scientific Names

All living things have names. Common ones have common names, like 'dog' and 'cat', and we have common names for pretty well every plant and animal we come across in daily life. Trouble is, these names are usually different in every language, sometimes different from one part of a country to another, and often there's more than one common name anyway. This is not good enough for those people whose job it is to make a list of all the different plants and animals we have on Earth or in the sea. No - each one has to have one individual name, and preferably one that gives us some idea who its closest relatives are, in the same way that we usually have names that suggest what family we come from.

Scientists divide animals into groups, which have something in common, then sub-groups, sub-groups of the sub-groups, and so on, until they can fit all of them into a specific place. For example, you could take all the animals with backbones as a group; one sub-group might be mammals; one sub-group of the mammals might be apes, and amongst the apes might be found various related creatures such as gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. Each of these sub-groups has a different name: the minimum number of steps includes, in descending order, 'kingdom' (the highest group in the heirarchy), 'phylum', 'class', 'order', 'family', 'genus' and 'species' (the lowest group,) although extra steps in between can be made by adding 'super-', 'sub-' or 'infra-' (as in superfamily, infraorder, subclass, etc.). It will not surprise you to learn that scientists do not always agree, in the case of particular animals, exactly how to divide them up and name them.

The names gorilla, chimpanzee, etc. are too vague, though - there could be several different types of gorilla, chimpanzee and human, which ought to be distinguished, so science has decided that special individual names should be given to each animal, in one language, which will be used by scientists all over the world. That language, unfortunately for some, is not English. It's Latin, and every plant and animal has a unique Latin name which identifies it. The name is usually in two parts, to show the individual species name of the animal, and the genus to which it belongs. This helps you to know exactly who it's most closely related to.

As it happens, there's only one type of human. No matter where you were born, or who your mother and father were, you're a Homo sapiens. The first part of the name, with a capital letter, is the 'genus' and the second part, without a capital letter, is the 'species'. Sometimes these names mean something in Latin. 'Homo' is 'man' and 'sapiens' is 'wise', so we're all 'wise men' - even women, I'm afraid. There used to be some other members of the Homo genus (Homo erectus, for example), but they're all extinct. Perhaps we evolved from them, but at the moment we're the only living species in the genus. When they catch Bigfoot they're going to have to decide if he's a Homo something, or a new genus by himself. They've probably already thought about it, but they won't know for sure until they can examine him.

Already discovered and examined animals can be given these names, even if they're extinct. Spygoria zappania and Amaurotoma zappa are examples of this, and so is Tyrannosaurus rex. Genus names can be abbreviated to a single letter, which is why you sometimes hear this creature referred to as T. rex.

So Z. confluentus is a member of the Zappa genus. Like us, he's the only species in the genus, but one day someone might discover more, and there will be other species called Zappa something. They'll all be fish, though, because you can't have more than one genus called Zappa.

P. zappai is one species of the genus Phialella, and there are several others, like Phialella fragilis and Phialella quadrata, which are very similar, but not quite the same. Lots of species could have the name zappai without being jellyfish: as long as the genus name is different, and reflects what type of creature they are. P. zappa is an example of a species of the genus Pachygnatha, which are all spiders.

'Goby' and 'Jellyfish' are suitable common names to use for some of these creatures, even though they're a bit general. Frankly, most of us would find it pretty hard to distinguish one goby or one jellyfish from another. Ed Murdy and Nando Boero can, though, and as long as there are people who are willing and able to do so, we must have the unique and individual names - in Latin - to differentiate them. Even tiny things like the bacteria Proteus mirabilis and Propionibacterium zappae have to have names, and will get them as long as there are people like Bob Belas around to look them over.

[Other information from The Vertebrate Story, Alfred Sherwood Romer, University of Chicago Press, 1933]

Cnidaria (Coelenterata)

The Cnidaria, or Coelenterata (Greek for 'hollow-gut'), is a phylum which includes corals, sea anemones and jellyfish.

"The phylum may be defined as that group of radiate animals (Radiata) that usually bear tentacles and possess intrinsic nematocysts [see below]. They may be said to be of the tissue grade of construction, and do not possess organs."
[Encyclopedia Britannica]

One family of creatures which belongs to this phylum is the Hydrozoa, or Hydromedusae, which mostly alternate between polyp (stuck to a rock like a sea anemone) and medusa (floating around like a jellyfish) stage. Phialella zappai is one of these.

Perhaps the best-known hydrozoan, familiar to most students of introductory biology, is Hydra. Hydra never goes through a medusoid stage, and spends its entire life as a polyp. However, Hydra is not typical of the Hydrozoa as a whole. Most hydrozoans alternate between a polyp and a medusa stage -- they spend part of their lives as "jellyfish".

A great many hydrozoans are also colonial. Some form delicate branched colonies, while others, known as 'fire corals', form massive colonies that resemble true corals. Other hydrozoans have developed pelagic (floating) colonies that are often confused with jellyfish, but unlike jellyfish they are composed of many individuals, all specialized for various functions. The 'Portuguese man-o'war' and 'by-the-wind-sailors' that often wash up on beaches are examples of these unusual colonial hydrozoans.

Some technical terms used about these creatures:

"Polyp: attached at its base . . . while its oral end is free and surrounded by tentacles.

Medusa: the free-swimming coelenterates popularly known as jellyfish are scientifically known as medusae, the name referring to the resemblance borne by the long mobile tentacles of some of these animals to the snaky tresses of the Gorgon Medusa of Greek mythology. The umbrella-shaped body of a medusa is called the bell. Hanging down inside the bell, from its midpoint, is a tubular structure, the manubrium that carries the mouth at its free end.

Nematocysts: these minute (5 - 100 microns) . . . capsules function in food-gathering, adhesion to foreign objects and protection . . . Nematocysts have double-walled capsules that contain a hollow, usually spined thread . . . On contact with foreign objects the nematocyst 'explodes' . . . Poisons, which act as paralytic agents are contained in the nematocyst and pass outward through the hollow thread in to the foreign object."
[Encyclopedia Britannica]

In other words, you get stung!

[Other information from the Cnidaria Home Page at the University of California, Irvine; the Introduction to the Hydrozoa at Berkeley; the Unesco-IOC Register of Marine Organisms and the Internet Resource Guide for Zoology (Dead link). I haven't been able to verify that these links all still work (2018)].


The Gobiidae is a very large family of fish, divided into many sub-families. They are "small, bottom-dwelling fishes found in warm and temperate seas. There are several freshwater species too. Body elongate, in rare cases eel-like, only slightly compressed from side to side.

"The head is pointed or truncated with no protuberances from the forehead. The mouth may be small or have a wide gape . . . Sometimes the first and second dorsal fins are fused together, and so too might be the dorsal, anal and tail fins. The ventral or pelvic fins are located at the breast and part or all of them may be transormed into a sucking disc. The skin is usually covered in scales, but some species are naked."
[The Aquarist's Encyclopedia, Gunter Sterba]

"This family includes the intriguing species in the sub-family Oxurdercinae or Mud-skippers, some of the few fish that have become true amphibians . . . They feed mainly on crustacea and mud worms, which they hunt in the mud when the tide is out. They climb onto branches and rocks and survey their territory for prey with their large mobile eyes. They can move very quickly overland with the aid of their strong pectoral fins and they are good jumpers."
[The Complete Aquarium Encyclopedia, J.D. van Ramshorst]

(This fish, of course, should on no account be confused with that member of the Hexanchidae popularly known as the 'Mudshark').

Other interesting gobies:

"Pandaka pygmaea from the Philippines, is one of the smallest known vertebrates [creatures with a backbone] about one half-inch long . . . the mudsucker or long-jawed goby, the chief bait-fish of Southern California, with the upper jaw prolonged in the adult to beyond the gill-opening; and a blind, pink species, Typhlogobius californiensis, which lives with a blind shrimp (a Calinassa species) in burrows under stones between the tide marks along the shores of Southern California."
[Encyclopedia Britannica]

Here is a list of all the genera of the sub-family Oxudercinae:


ZapA (Proteus mirabilis)

The following chart shows the relationship between ZapA and other members of the serralysin family of zinc mettaloproteases, including those of the infamous E. coli:

[Image: ZapA diagram]

The serralysin family of proteases can be grouped with the snake venom proteases in a larger family of the so-called metzincins.


In 2006, some time after I wrote the original article Planet Zappafrank, Pluto was officially downgraded from its previous status of 'planet' to 'dwarf planet' - a new category somewhere in between 'planet' and 'asteroid' - with the minor planet number 134340. At the time of writing (2008) there are only four of these so-called dwarf planets - and Pluto isn't even the biggest - but there are bound to be many more discovered in the future. What a come-down!

Needless to say, this decision was highly controversial and old-fashioned types like myself have been slow to accept this judgement on the part of the International Astronomical Union. Frankly, we're only setting ourselves up as a laughing stock in the extra-terrestrial community, since images of the solar system showing Pluto as the 9th planet were sent out into the far reaches of the universe on the Pioneer and Voyager space probes in the 1970s to show them where we live and what we know about our neighbourhood. Not going to do much for our intergalactic credibility if we can't even get that right, is it?

This Page: Scientific Names | Cnidaria (Coelenterata) | Gobiidae | ZapA (Proteus mirabilis) | Pluto

Introduction | ZapA (Proteus mirabilis) | Zappa confluentus | Phialella zappai | Spygoria zappania | Amaurotoma zappa | Pachygnatha zappa | Propionibacterium zappae | Humulus lupulus 'Neomexicanus' | Planet Zappafrank

Go to the [Zappa & Other Music Page | The Music Page | andymurkin dotcom Home Page]