Field of Science

Naming Species After Scientists?

My former labmate Dr. Juan Carlos Villarreal recently described a new species of hornworts from Columbia.

Hornworts are a separate lineage of bryophytes that are named for the morphology of the sporophytes. They open by two vertical slits splitting the sporangium into two halves starting at the apex. To the right is an image of several elongated sporophytes sticking out of the frilly gametophyte thallus below. The tallest sporophyte is splitting at the top. However, this is not the new species, but a plant that grew in one of the other cultures that I was growing in the laboratory. 

The new species, Nothoceros renzagliensis is named after Dr. Karen S. Renzaglia, who is a professor at Southern Illinois University. Her research focuses on early land plant anatomy, morphology, and systematics. Juan Carlos completed his master's thesis studying hornworts in her laboratory.

I think that it is fabulous that Juan Carlos named this plant after his former advisor. She is a great scientist who has contributed significantly to the field of bryology. I am completely in favor of naming species in dedication to scientists who have contributed significantly to the study of a particular group of organisms. 

The only time I have been involved in naming a species was for the fern ally Isoetes tennesseensis. This species is endemic to Tennessee, hence the name.

What do you think? Should the specific epithets of scientific names contain information about the region where the organism is found or some other salient morphological feature? Or do you like the idea of naming plants or animals in tribute to great scientists?


  1. While it seems like a good idea to honor those scientists who have dedicated their lives to help elucidate the biology and evolution of said group of animals, many time organisms are named after people who have no association at all with the species in question.

    Although, naming an organism after a famous scientist is far better than naming a new genus or species after a certain location or province, as has been the case recently in vertebrate paleontology. While naming an organism after the region it is found makes sense for endemic species with a small range, like the above-mentioned hornworts, it does not make sense for wide-ranging species like dinosaurs, such as many of the new species coming out of Asia. It gets really annoying when multiple species are named after the same city or region, as is the case for Linhe (Linhenykus, Linheraptor, Linhevenator) or Zhucheng (Zhuchengtyrannus, Zhuchengceratops, Zhuchengsaurus). This isn't limited to Asia (Paluxysaurus and Albertaceratops from across the Pacific also come to mind), but the frequency of "name-and-place-asauruses" can get a little irritating to some. It also leads to the rather awkward explanation of why a species is named after a location if its remains have also been found in many other localities across of the continent or its range is much larger than the name suggests.

  2. I am all for naming a species to honor either a "famous" scientist, or even a scientist who has heavily influenced the educational and professional growth of the person with naming "rights."

  3. The only problem I can see with the name is that the suffix '-ensis' indicates a location. So the name 'renzagliensis' indicates that Dr Renzaglia had the hornwort in question growing directly on her person, which doesn't sound particularly pleasant for all concerned. The more appropriate form would have been 'renzagliae'.

  4. I think naming it after the person who found it is far more interesting :-) Scientist or "layperson"


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