Naming a New Mollusk Species

- By Thomas E. Eichhorst, March, 2000.

      How does one go about naming a new species of mollusc, and can anyone do this? To answer the second question first, yes, anyone can name a shell or any other previously unnamed organism. Although few amateurs today publish and name new species, this used to be quite common in the past, especially during the heyday of amateur naturalists and collectors -- the 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Today it is most common if a layman discovers a new species for that person to turn it over to a professional for the actual naming. But this is not to say that an experienced amateur naturalist couldn't follow the same process and name his own finding. So now to the first question, how is it done? Before actually discussing the process of naming a new species, let's look at the reasoning and history behind the use of scientific names.

Scientific Names -- The Binomial System
      The use of the scientific name for a mollusc (or plant or bird or any living thing) was adopted out of necessity. What people in North America call a robin is a completely different bird from the robin of Europe. So too our abalone is called variously a sea ear, Venus ear, paua, mutton fish, awabi, perlemelon, and ormer depending on where in the world you happen to be. These common names could really be thought of as local nicknames and the scientific name as the true common  (as in "shared") name. After all Haliotis asinina L., is commonly known around the world for that particular species of abalone, or paua, or ormer, orÖwell you get it. The benefit of eliminating confusion over names is obvious. So how did this get started?

      As you can imagine, prior to the widespread explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries, local nicknames were quite sufficient. The people of two separate villages in the same country pretty much experienced the same things and what was a robin to one village was a robin to the neighboring village. The fact that a red-breasted bird that was totally different might exist thousands of miles away was not even seriously considered. And then came the push for exploration and finding new lands. Ships began bringing back literally thousands of never before seen (by the Europeans anyway) animals and plants. Books were soon printed describing and cataloging these new finds and names abounded. Strombus gigas (the Florida queen or pink conch) was named Murex marmoreus by Rondelet, Murice Orecchiuto per il gran labbro che aporge by Bounanni, Buccinum ampullaceum striatum clavicula muricata apertura leviter purpurascente by Lister, and Marbled Jamaica Murex with Knotty Twirls by Petiver. And you thought modern names were tough! They were simply continuing a process of cataloging the natural world that had begun long before them.

      The Greek, Aristotle (384-322 BC) and later the Roman, Pliny (23-79 AD) categorized, classified, and named the natural world as they knew it. The idea of a plant and animal kingdom had its start here. All living things fit into these two categories, a plant kingdom and an animal kingdom -- an idea that held through the 1960s! There are now five (maybe six) kingdoms (plant, animal, fungus, protista (primitive one-celled animals), bacteria, viruses) but this does not change the scientific naming process.

      The concept of species was invented by a quiet, introspective man in England named John Ray (1628-1705). Ray basically said, a plant or animal species was the name applied to a set of individuals who through reproduction give rise to individuals like themselves. However, names for species were still pretty haphazard until Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) published System Naturae, and in the tenth edition in 1758 he used a system of genus and species where organisms were each given a two-name label, the binomial (or binominal, an older spelling and probably more correct spelling) system. This is the system in use today after the First International Zoological Congress met in 1889 and adopted a code for nomenclature that included Linnaeus' binomial system. This code was revised in 1901 and a permanent International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature was established, the often cited ICZN.

Naming (or "describing") A New Species
      Let's say you discovered some snails on your rose bushes that you are convinced are a new species. No one has ever seen these critters before and you want to name them. First you collect and preserve a representative sample of the population. Now comes the most basic, straightforward, time consuming, difficult, and most often done improperly, part of the naming process. You must do a thorough and exhaustive research through publications, periodicals, journals, monographs, books, etc. to determine if this is indeed a new species. If it has already been described and named, then the best you can do is name some of your snails with personal names like John, George, Betty, and Robert. Someone beat you to the punch and you will have to keep looking for that new mollusk. As you can imagine, this first step is the toughest. Even after you search through all of the proper publications on this type of snail, then through all of the studies and research papers at the local university, then the same for other universities and museum collections -- you still have a ways to go. What if this snail was named in a foreign publication? Well, I think you get the picture. This is a difficult process and all too often something is missed and we end up with another synonym (ie, "same name") on the books. There are a number of molluskan species in existence that have been named dozens of times. For instance, Conus ventricosus Gmelin, 1791 from the Mediterranean has at least 75 other names or synonyms- which means that  a LOT of folks didn't do their homework very well!  Another example would be Epitoniumtennuicostata Michaud, 1829 which is really the juvenile form of Epitonium turtonis Turton, 1819.

      Let's say your exhaustive search turned up nothing on your new find; now for the next step. You should select a holotype and some paratypes to be deposited at a museum where they will be preserved so someone else can verify your description or do research using the original specimens.  The "holotype"  (which comes from the greek word "holo" which means "whole" or "Entire", and type, which means an example chosen to represent a group of something) is the specimen used to represent the entire species: in the publication which establishes a new species' name, it is described in detail, and often compared to simailar species, to aid in identification.  Therefore, it should be a) fully adult (plenty of synonyms are created by people describing juvenile specimens! (as in the above example),  b) intact, so that all aspects and parts of it can be detailed, and c) a typical, representative, average specimen of its kind - if you describe a dwarf, freak, giant, or otherwise odd, unusual or atypical example of the species, then you are certain to cause confusion later on!!  The "paratypes" (from the  Greek "para", which means "along side of" or in addition to) are additional specimens of the species, usually but not nessessarily from the same population as the holotype.   They are used to demonstrate some of the variability of the species - most  are quite variable, so a single specimen is inadequate to represent an entire species!  Also, having paratypes helps diminish the possibility that you are in fact describing a non-typical specimen.  It is advised that you use several paratypes when describing a species - more if they show extreme variability.  Sometimes, an "author" (i.e., the person describing the new species) will use several specimens instead of one, for the holotype - in this case, these are called "syntypes", from the Greed word for "together".  Any sample of the material (ie, group of specimens) that is used when describing a species, is called a "type lot" - so when you are comparing the species you think might be undescribed (ie, new to science), you must seek out Type Lots of species which are similar, for direct comparison - this could be the holotype, any of the paratypes or syntypes,  or other specimens which the author used while describing the species.  In cases where  the type material has been lost, or where the syntypes contain different species, an experienced researcher may designate a lectotype (and paralectotypes) to replace the missing holotype.

       So now you have your  holo- or syntypes, and paratypes selected (you must deposit the holotype or syntypes in a major, recognized institutional collection (museum, university, taxonomic research intitute, etc.), so people can have easy access to it). Now you must write up a thorough description of your new species and this should include the soft parts of the animal as well as the shell. Oh no! You forgot to preserve the animals and only saved the shells. Well this will work, but if at all possible, the animal should also be preserved and described. Who cares? Isn't the shell more important? In a word, no (well, most older type lots are shells only, and some species even today are described from the shell only, but this is becoming less and less acceptable). There are actually some species that can not be differentiated by the shell alone. More and more work is now being done using the anatomy of the animal, and even biochemical and genetic (ie, DNA) techniques are being used by many researchers.

      At one time a description of the shell or a drawing was all that was required -- no actual specimen had to be designated as a type. Holotypes have only been widely used in the last 100 years or so. // So you have your type specimens, now write up your description. You've seen them in shell publications - not simple, but do-able. If you haven't seen one, check out a few shell publications. Not all publications are suitable for naming a new species. For your description to be accepted it should go through a "peer review" (one or more experienced scientists who have good familiarity with the family or genus your new species ("species Novum" or "sp. Nov.)  belongs to , are designated by the publication you choose to publish the species description in. They are carefully chosen, since the reputation of the publication is at stake every time it puts an arcticle into "the litererature", which is the totality of published scientific knowledge.  If a discovery is not "in the literature" (ie, if it hasn't been published via the peer-review process), it is as if it doesn't even exist!!)  and be published in a journal that is permitted to offer new species descriptions. Your shell club newsletter will usually not suffice, although many fit the ICZN criteria and some have been used in the past to name new species. A publication such as "La Conchiglia" or "The Veliger" or any of a number of scientific journals is the best choice.

    Another challenge is the Latin or scientific name you choose. There are a few rules you will have to follow. Genus names are always nouns, or at least are always treated as such. Species names may be either nouns or adjectives. Latin is gender specific: all nouns (which represent real or abstract objects or concepts) are designated as Masculine, Feminine, or Neuter,  and adjectives (which describe or modify a noun) must agree with their genus-nouns in gender. If the genus of your new species is masculine, then your species name must also be masculine. This is not always clear because modern convention occasionally ignores this rule. For instance, some people (especially dealers, for convenience) lump most of the volutids (ie, family Volutidae - Volutes) in a catch-all genus "Voluta," even though we all know there are many valid genera within the family. The name Voluta is feminine, but some of the genera within Volutidae may be masculine or neuter, so the proper citation should have the species name match the genus name.

      So, how do we know what gender the genus name is? Fortunately, most of the names fall into three major groups, called "declensions," which have characteristic endings. For our purposes, the first two groups are the same:

*usually; sometimes the masculine has a completely random ending.

Thus, of the three main genera in the family Naticidae, Natica is feminine, Polinices is masculine, and Sinum is neuter. The species names in most books would reflect this: Polinices duplicatus. On the other hand, many malacologists now consider the subgenera of Polinices to be of generic rank. In that case, our friend becomes Neverita duplicata--note the change of ending to match the gender.

      But what about those annoying -i and -ii and -ae endings? Those are called patronyms (Latin for father or sponsor, and name), and are meant to honor someone - a colleague, benefactor, collector, or friend (or in some cases, the family cat!!). Here, the ending reflects the gender of the honoree, not the gender of the genus name--and neuter doesnít apply. With patronyms, the endings do not change, even if the species gets moved to another genus. These endings are:

Masculine Singular
Feminine Singular
Masculine Plural
Feminine Plural
-i or -ii

      So all hurdles behind you, you get your article published and everyone now accepts your new species or family realignment or elevation of a subgenus to a genus. Well, maybe. Anyone can name, rename, realign, etc. but that does not mean their work will be accepted. Even after passing all of the hurdles and getting your article published, you may still see the entire thing slowly wash down the drain. Someone may write an article opposing your views, your views may be thought of as too radical or not properly developed, or you may be stepping on someone's toes who has respect in the community (hey - scientists are people too!!). Any or all of these can cause your article to vanish into oblivion. What about the previously mentioned ICZN, don't they sit in judgement of scientific names and decide if a name is valid or not? No, they do not. The ICZN establishes the rules for taxonomy; rules like the earliest name takes precedence (with some exceptions only the ICZN can allow), there must be a photograph accompanying a new species description, and it has to be published in hard copy, publicly available and in sufficient copies. ICZN judgement of your article is pretty much limited to the validity of the name and will not be applied to the validity of your research. For instance, the ICZN ruled that the name Conus anabathrum had been used enough to take precedence over Conus floridanus, IF the names were determined to be synonymous. They did not rule on whether or not the two names were synonymous for the same shell. For the most part, they can be thought of as the group that makes the rules and then lets others play the game. Supposedly this leaves research to be judged on its own merit by peer review.

      The key to naming a new species is very careful research and preparation before putting pen to paper. If you decide to do it yourself instead of turning your find over to a professional, then proceed slowly and try to get some editing help from a professional before you submit your article. A poorly researched article will quickly fade into oblivion.

      In the future, such articles may be published on the Internet. The ICZN as adopted rules for partial electronic publication by allowing that a work may be valid if it is deposited on a disk or CD at five different libraries and is thus "permanent" and accessible. This is the first time such scientific works have been allowed in a purely electronic medium and in the future the "accessible" part may involve the Internet. There are any number of issues to be resolved, but the questions have at least been raised.

Sincerely yours,
Tom Eichhorst 
(with minor alterations by Ross Mayhew).(To the arcticle, not Tom !)


To Top of Page


This is a new counter system set up by Globel on
December 01, 2002