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Why Do Insects and Other Animals Have Scientific Names?

By Chris Williams on March 4, 2016.

All animals have two types of names – common names and scientific names. You don’t realize it but you already know the common names for many pests, like German cockroach, Norway rat, clothes moth, or bed bug – these are their common names. It’s not quite that simple though since many creatures have more than one common name, as well as different ethnic or regional names. It can be confusing. We don’t always know if we’re all talking about the same pest when we use a common name to describe it.

The Norway Rat = Rattus norvegicus

The Norway rat, for example, is also known as the brown rat, the sewer rat, the house rat, and the wharf rat, depending on your region and what the rat is doing at the time. Fortunately, there is a second, precise way of naming and classifying animals that can’t be confused, and that is the scientific name. If we use the Norway rat’s scientific name, Rattus norvegicus, then all concerned know exactly which rat we are talking about and we are not likely to confuse it with the black rat, also known as the roof rat or ship rat, and scientifically as Rattus rattus.

It’s the Insect’s True First and Last Name

A scientific name is a two-part name in Latin that, when properly written, is either italicized or underlined. You can think of the scientific name as the official first and last name for an insect or animal, but in reverse. The German cockroach is officially Blattella germanica. The name, Blattella, is the name of a cockroach genus, sort of a large related grouping which may contain several similar cockroaches. The second name, germanica, is the species name and is given to only one member of the Blattella genus, like a person’s more descriptive first name.

Of course scientific names are cumbersome and just one more thing to remember. Scientific names are used primarily by entomologists or scientists, and occasionally by pest management professionals. In the pest control business, we don’t often burden our customers with the scientific names of their pests if the more descriptive common names work instead. For example, you prefer to call your dog by his shorter nickname rather than by his wordy, official pedigreed name. But, if you’re doing your own pest research, the scientific name is something you might need to know. The Entomological Society of America maintains the Official Common Names list for insects. On their website you can type in either the common or the scientific name for an insect and you will receive the cross-referenced name.

So…good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the Cimex lectularius bite!

Photo Credit : By Alvesgaspar| CC BY-SA 3.0

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