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Scientific nomenclature


Fossils are classified according to an international “name-giving” system called nomenclature. The classification system was first proposed by the Swedish naturalist: Carl von Linné (a.k.a Linnaeus). He published his first book on nomenclature in 1758. Ever since, this system is used for all botanical and zoological nomenclature, and therefore all fossils as well.

The classification is mainly based on visual, anatomical, physical and chemical properties. However, there is also a connection with evolution, and environmental aspects, as well as genetics. Classic layouts are frequently completely revised by using the latest developments in DNA techniques. This is especially the case for the non-extinct species. Unfortunately,  this technique is not yet applicable on fossils.

The classification is based on a hierarchical classification in different categories. The primary categories in the systematic naming are as follows:

   Empire (Regnum)
   -- Division (Phylum)
   ---- Class (Classis)
   ------ Order (Ordo)
   -------- Family (Familia)
   ---------- Genus (Genus)
   ------------ Species (Species)
   -------------- Subspecies (Subspecies)

In some cases, sub-classifications are used, using the prefix sub- and super- (example: subfamily, superspecies… etc).


Description of species

Each known species is described in a scientific journal, or paper. If it turns out that a species has been described by different authors, the first (in this case the oldest) paper, has the right to give his proposed name  to the species. When describing a species, a reference sample is also appointed. We  call this specimen, the Holotype. This is the fossil, upon which the description is based.

The Holotype (type specimen) is unique in his kind, it has been described as the reference to an entire species, and includes all the diagnostic features of this species. As is the case in scientific studies, this holotype has to be preserved in an accessible place (for example: in the scientific collection of a museum or other public collection). Also, the fossil should remain accessible to further scientific research in the future. A Lectotype on the other hand, is a type specimen introduced after the regulations concerning holotypes changed. If a Holotype or Lectotype is lost a Neotype may be designated. All other specimens besides Holotype called Paratypes.


Scientific names of a fossil

When designating the name of a fossil, Usually the genus and species name are mentioned. In some cases, even the subspecies can be mentioned. The name of a genus and subgenus is always written with a capital letter. The species however, is an exception to this rule, no capital letter is used. Both genus and species name are written in italic. The names are often, but not always, written in Latin or at least Latinized. We call this the scientific name of a fossil.

Example: Agnostus pisiformis

If the genus, or subgenus, is the only known part of an identification, the abbreviation "sp." is used. This indicates all the known species residing under the genus (or subgenus). If the species is known, but not the subspecies, the abbreviations "ssp." (subspecies) is used. In the case where the genus is not known, usually the name of the family or higher category is mentioned.

Example: Favosites sp. OR Megacardita planicosta ssp.

When there is doubt concerning to the exact species, one can use the abbreviation cf. This Latin word means: "confer" or "compare". You can read it as "similar to...". For Agnostus sp., which resembles an A. pisiformis, but is still different, we write the following:

Example: Agnostus cf. pisiformis

Following right after the name of the fossil, is the name of the author who first described this particular species. Also mentioned, is the year of publication. This gives a an indication to the reader / researcher in what year the publication was published (and where one can find the list with diagnostic features). You can read the example below as: Agnostus pisiformis, as described in Linnaeus, 1757 ', where' Linnaeus, 1757 'represents a specific publication.

Example: Agnostus pisiformis Linnaeus, 1757

The author and year are written between brackets, if the species was originally described by another author.

Example: Aequipecten opercularis (Linnaeus, 1758)

If a subgenus has been described, it should be listed in parentheses after the genus.

Example: Neptunea (Sulcosopho) angulata (Wood, 1848)

If a subspecies is known, they should be  listed after the species.

Example: Pygocardia rustica defrancei

Sometimes “forms” or varieties can be distinguished within a species or subspecies. They are indicated by the term "forma " (meaning formative) and then the name.

Example: Caracomia arctica forma spinosa Hildebrand-Habel and Streng, 2003


Found a special fossil? How to describe your discovery (or get it described).

Ok, so you’ve found a remarkable fossil you can’t identify. But preserving your special discovery far away from everyone, isn’t all that interesting. All it does, is gather dust in a drawer, shoe box, display case, or safe. Hidden fossils are almost nobody's business, except yours. However, increasingly, we see people take the step to do something with their discoveries. Describing fossils, whether it is a new species, a rare appearance, bite-mark, or perhaps a pathological specimen, is the first step towards a whole new world of advanced fossil collecting. You can always get help from more experienced people, or perform your own research and write an article yourself. A combination of both often works best. There are scientific journals of all kinds, in which you can publish your story. Writing an article for a scientific journal however, is a difficult task, but there’s no rule saying an amateur collector should not do it.

But in many cases, the scientific commitment of the amateur collector starts with a good cooperation with a professional. An additional pair of eyes, skillful hands, and brains during fieldwork is a blessing for every professional. These kinds of friendly collaborations often form the basis for a future scientific publication, an excavation... For many people the first contact with scientific practice begins with the discovery of  a special specimen. When asked to donate their discovery for scientific research, some typical questions might arise:

Why should I donate  a particular fossil for a scientific description? Can’t I just lend the specimen for a certain amount of time, or keep in my private collection?

This question often pops up. Whoever is lucky enough to discover a fossil that it is not yet described,  can one day or another, get the question to donate his fossil for a scientific description. This often leads to a dilemma: of course it's great fun to make a contribution to science, and to get (often in the form of acknowledgements in the publication), recognition by the scientific community (sometimes even giving the finders name to the new species), but on the other hand, you will be asked to permanently donate the fossil. What is it good for?

Well, opposite to what you might think, the involved scientist who wants to describe the fossil, does not want to keep the  specimen  for himself. There are international agreements,  that each new species should be included in an accessible collection. This is hugely important because the fossil should be available for further research, as well as reference material for other new species, or to interpret the original description and verification. Although some private collections can compete with the best scientific collections, in terms of quality, order, and,  accuracy, But this is certainly not the case for the average amateur collection. There are also questions on public  accessibility and continuity. What if someone moves or dies ? Moreover, it is not very practical to have you. Holotypes in private collections across the country  One thing is clear: a holotype, lectotype or neotype should be part of a well-managed, public, and accessible, scientific collection.

Ok, so you’ve decided to donate your specimen,  but only if it will be exposed in a showcase, and  as a part of the permanent exhibition of the museum!

It would be nice and informative to see your fossil on display. But in reality, for most museums and institutes it’s not possible. Hundreds or thousands of donated specimens can’t have a central place in the permanent exhibition So most likely, you will find your fossil in a drawer somewhere behind the scenes.

I am sure that I have found something special and donating is not a problem, but the scientists I  contacted, don’t seem to have any time or interest!

You must be aware that most scientists work in a specific niche, and it’s possible they lack the time or practical knowledge to perform the description. Possibly, you’ll have to look a bit  further, perhaps even across national borders. When looking for the right person, let your local research institution or amateur-paleontology colleagues guide you.

Do you have additional information for this article? Please contact the Fossiel.net Team.