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Living creatures are classified into species, which are in turn classified into genera, families, orders, and higher (larger) groups. To date, approximately 1.9 million species have been discovered and named. According to the opinion of taxonomic experts, the actual number of species existing on earth is between 3 and 100 million with a recent discovered method putting the number at 8.7 million.
New species are continually being discovered. In 2010, it is estimated that 18,225 new species were discovered and scientifically described (plus an additional 2,140 fossil species presumed extinct).
The number of published names for species does not exactly reflect the number of separate species that have been named, since many names are duplicates. Efforts are currently underway to establish central lists of all species names: ZooBank attempts to do this for animals, the International Plant Names Index for plants, MycoBank for fungi.
When a creature is discovered, it is first necessary to determine whether it is a new species, a new subspecies or merely a variant of an already described and known species. As there is no single, unambiguous definition of “species” this determination can be time-consuming and subject to discussion and disagreement.
By tradition, the right to name a new species is given to the first scientific describer of the species (the first scientific discoverer), who is not necessarily the first discoverer in general. An example of a species that has been named by the first scientist who described it rather than the first person who saw it in nature is Semachrysa jade: Malaysian amateur photographer Hock Ping Guek was aware there were rare lacewings in the wild in the Selangor State Park and was trying for four years to capture macrophotographss of a specific insect he had seen; when he finally succeeded he published the macrophotographs on Flickr, where entomologist Shaun Winterton saw them and decided it was probably an undiscovered species so he asked the photographer whether he could capture a specimen, which Hock Ping Guek was able to do so after a year when he saw the insect again, and the specimen was sent to Steven J. Brooks at the Natural History Museum in London who confirmed that it was indeed a new species; photographer Hock Ping Guek collaborated with entomologists Shaun Winterton and Steven J. Brooks in producing a scientific paper which was published in ZooKeys, and the species was named by Shaun Winterton. Before the publication of the paper, Steven J. Brooks found out that another specimen from Malaysia that had been sent to the museum in London many years earlier but it was never studied or classified. Semachrysa jade was thus named by Shaun Winterton because he was the first scientist who realized it was a new species and co-published a scientific paper describing it, even though the insect was seen, photographed and captured by other people in the past, as these older discoveries did not result in a scientific publication.
There are many regulations to be followed when naming a species, all of them fixed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) where animals are concerned, or the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN).
In general, the nomenclature of creatures follows a system established 1758 by Carl von Linné and each scientific species name is a composite of two parts, namely the genus name and the species name. For example, the scientific name of the European Common Frog is Rana temporaria, where Rana is the genus name and temporaria is the species name.
As the genus name should reflect relationships among different species within the same genus, the first attempt after each discovery is to allocate the creature to a respective genus (and the systematic categories of higher hierarchical levels). Thus in most cases, with exception of the discovery of new genera, the genus name is fixed already, whereas the species name may be freely chosen by the scientific describer of the species within the frame of the ICZN or ICN regulations.
A name of a new species becomes valid with the date of publication of its formal scientific description. Once the discoverer/scientist has performed the necessary research to determine that the discovered creature represents a new and formerly undescribed species, the scientific results are summarized in a manuscript to be submitted to a scientific journal.
A scientific species description to establish a new species name must fulfill several formal criteria (e.g. selection of a so-called type specimen), fixed by the ICZN or ICN. These criteria are designed to ensure that the species name is clear and unambiguous. The ICZN further states that "Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence."
It is a common misconception that species names must be expressed in Latin, or in Latinized English. While this is required in certain cases, it is not an absolute requirement. A species name must be expressed in the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, but many species names come from other languages - such as Erythroxylum coca, which is derived from the South American Quechua language. A species name need not even be a word from any language, provided that it is not confusing or unpronounceable. So "bazzungi" might be acceptable where "gtdkrf" would not.
Once the manuscript has been accepted for publication and printed, the new species name is officially created (and the new species officially existent).
Once a species name has been assigned and approved, it can generally not be changed except in the case of error. For example, a species of beetle (Anophthalmus hitleri) was named by a German collector after Adolf Hitler in 1933 when he had recently became chancellor of Germany (the second world war was started years later, in 1939), with Hitler sending a letter expressing his gratitude. It is not clear whether such a dedication would be considered acceptable or appropriate today, but the name remains in use.
Religious names are not allowed, and if a species is named with a religion-related name then the name is changed at first opportunity.
Species names have been chosen on many different bases. Most common is a naming for the species' external appearance, its origin, or the species name is a dedication for a certain person. Examples would include a bat species named for the two stripes on its back (Saccopteryx bilineata), a frog named for its Bolivian origin (Phyllomedusa boliviana), and an ant species dedicated to the actor Harrison Ford (Pheidole harrisonfordi). A scientific name in honor of a person or persons is a known as a taxonomic patronym or patronymic.
A number of humorous species names also exist. Literary examples include the genus name Borogovia (an extinct dinosaur), which is named after the borogove, a mythical character from Lewis Carrol's poem "Jabberwocky". A second example, Macrocarpaea apparata (a tall plant) was named after the magical spell "to apparate" from the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling, as it seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Species have frequently been named by scientists in recognition of supporters and benefactors. For example, the genus Victoria (a flowering waterplant) was named in honour of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. More recently, a species of lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the actor John Cleese in recognition of his work to promote the plight of lemurs in Madagascar.
Non-profit ecological organizations may also allow benefactors to name new species in exchange for financial support for taxonomic research and nature conservation. This idea was first developed by Gerhard Haszprunar, a professor of systematic zoology at the University of Munich and director of the State Zoological Collection in Munich. It has since expanded worldwide through efforts by various non-profit and conservation organizations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Audubon Society, and Canada’s Nature Discovery Fund. A German non-profit organisation (gemeinnütziger Verein), BIOPAT - Patrons for Biodiversity has raised more than $450,000 for research and conservation through sponsorship of over 100 species using this model.
Perhaps the best known individual example of this system is the Callicebus aureipalatii (or "monkey of the Golden Palace"), which was named after the Golden Palace organization in recognition of a $650,000 contribution to the Madidi National Park in Bolivia in 2005.