Naming Fossils

Tutor: Mike Horne

Fossils are named in the same way as living plants and animals, using a system devised by Linnaeus. The rules and conventions can get complicated so here is a guide to help you understand some of the things you may find.

They are given a generic name such as Homo which begins with a capital letter.
And a specific name such as sapiens, which begins with a lower case letter.

When you are writing them the Genus and species are underlined; when you are printing the name if you can you should use italics.

BUT the name is not put into italics when naming the stratigraphic biozone, for example "the fossil Inoceramus lingua is found in the Inoceramus lingua zone".

You may see a subspecies name after the species name, such as Homo sapiens sapiens.
You may also see two further peices of infomation - a persons name and a date, for example: Tricheus manatus Linnaeus 1758. The name is the person who first named the species and the date is the year in which it was named.

The name of the species cannot be changed (well occasionally they are altered slightly to ensure they conform to the rules of Latin grammar). But, there is a law of priority which says that if two names have been given to the same species the name which was published first is the one that should be used.

If at a later date the species is moved into a new or different genus the authors details are put into rounded brackets for example : Tricheus dugon Muller 1776 becomes Dugong dugong (Muller 1776) Palmer 1895.

Sometimes you will see some more information about the genus in the name such as :
a subgenus in rounded brackets e.g. Inoceramus (Cataceramus) blaticus J Bohm
an old well known genus in square brackets e.g. Nuculana [Leda] ovum
or an incorrect name in quotation marks e.g. "Inoceramus" dubius now known as Pseudomytiloides dubius, when authors knew that is was the wrong but commonly known name but did not have the time to redefine it.

If you see sp. nov. or gen. nov. in a paper - the author is describing a new species or genus for the first time.

If you are not sure about the correct name of a fossil you can use one of the following tactics:
Just name the genus
Or name it as undetermined species e.g. Gryphea sp.
Or say that it like a species but may not be e.g. Gryphea aff. arcuata
Or use some question marks e.g. ?Gryphea sp. Or Gryphea ? arcuata.

Although trace fossils (such as footprints or burrows) are not the preserved remains of living animals the same rules are used for naming them. Often their 'generic' names end in -ichnus .

Some other groups of fossils may have common endings to their generic names for example: -teuthis for belemnites, -iceras or -oceras for ammonoids, -saurus for reptiles and dinosaurs, -crinus for crinoids. But this is not a rule!