What's in a scientific name? Maybe your own.

From Niebla josecuervoe, (foggy Jose Cuervo cactus) to Phyllidia polkadotsa (polka-dotted sea slug), biologists have a way with words when it comes to naming species.

The official names of newly discovered plants or animals - as opposed to common names such as "brown pelican" or "raccoon" - are bestowed in honor of a favorite high school biology teacher, rich benefactor, or even characters on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Creativity also can play a role in picking a name. The botanists who discovered Niebla josecuervoe may have found inspiration during a misty, dreamy evening sitting around a desert campfire.

The names often describe the organism's physical characteristics. The Lampetra tridentata is a lamprey eel with three rows of tiny parasitic teeth: tri- for three, -dentata for teeth. Or names can refer to where the organism was originally found.

"It's a lot of fun to come up with a new name," says Luis Chiappe, a paleontologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History who has named more than a dozen new dinosaur species around the world. "I tend to come up with names that relate to the specimen."

In 1996, Chiappe and a Spanish colleague named a 115-million-year-old fossil bird: the goldfinch-size Eoalulavis hoyasi. The name means first (eo-) bird (-avis) with a small secondary or "bastard" wing used for steering (-alula) found in Las Hoyas, Spain (-hoyasi).

For paleontologists like Chiappe, describing a new animal is more difficult because theymay only be working with a few fossilized bones from a long-dead animal. The world's greatest species-namer, 19th-century naturalist Edward Drinker Cope, described more than 1,200 extinct dinosaurs, mammals, fishes, and lizards prior to his death in 1897.

Of course, Mr. Cope sometimes goofed. He once placed the skull ofa giant marine reptile on its tail, a mistake pointed out by archrival O.C. Marsh.

Whenever a new species is named and described, the paper that puts the species on the scientific map must be accompanied by a type specimen or holotype, the original example of the species by which all other specimens are measured

Scientific names must be in Latin and approved in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. They must also be registered with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature in London.

The code is published by an international commission set up in 1895, which now consists of 24 zoologists from 19 countries. It gives rulings on disputes over nomenclature. So far, several million species of animals are recognized, and more than 15,000 new animal-species names are added every year. The International Association for Plant Taxonomy in Vienna, performs a similar function for botanists.

Latin nomenclature allows scientists around the world to refer to the same animal or plant, whereas common names vary from place to place.

The naming of new species can also become political or personal.

First rule: No one can name new species after themselves. It just isn't done.

Researchers say it's good manners for a scientist to name a new find after a colleague or perhaps a graduate student who spent years lugging around his professor's equipment, and may have discovered the organism in the first place.

In fact, if you want your name on a new underwater animal, you may want to become pals with Hans Bertsch. This San Diego naturalist, teacher, and photographer has named 30 new kinds of nudibranches (brightly colored mollusks sometimes called sea slugs), shells, and other marine invertebrates since 1970.

In October, Bertsch named three new nudibranches from Baja California: Peltodoris mullineri,Peltodoris lancei, and Trapania goslineri after fellow dive buddies and nudibranch lovers Dave Mulliner, Jim Lance, and Terrence Gosliner. Bertsch himself has several species named after him, including Bajaeolis bertschi, a brilliant red-and-white nudibranch found in Bahia de los Angeles.

"In naming species, I like to be as creative as possible as well as respectful," said Bertsch, a salty-haired, sun-loving diver who revels in nudibranch lore.

"If you study birds, you're lucky to find a subspecies," Bertsch says. "But we're finding new things all the time.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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