The Art of Naming

The Art of Naming

By Michael Ohl

Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer

From Tyrannosaurus rex to Heteropoda davidbowie: scientific naming as a joyful and creative act.





From Tyrannosaurus rex to Heteropoda davidbowie: scientific naming as a joyful and creative act.

Tyrannosaurus rex. Homo sapiens. Heteropoda davidbowie. Behind each act of scientific naming is a story. In this entertaining and illuminating book, Michael Ohl considers scientific naming as a joyful and creative act. There are about 1.8 million discovered and named plant and animal species, and millions more still to be discovered. Naming is the necessary next step after discovery; it is through the naming of species that we perceive and understand nature. Ohl explains the process, with examples, anecdotes, and a wildly varied cast of characters. He describes the rules for scientific naming; the vernacular isn't adequate. These rules—in standard binomial nomenclature, the generic name followed by specific name—go back to Linnaeus; but they are open to idiosyncrasy and individual expression. A lizard is designated Barbaturex morrisoni (in honor of the Doors' Jim Morrison, the Lizard King); a member of the horsefly family Scaptia beyonceae. Ohl, a specialist in “winged things that sting,” confesses that among the many wasp species he has named is Ampulex dementor, after the dementors in the Harry Potter novels. Scientific names have also been deployed by scientists to insult other scientists, to make political statements, and as expressions of romantic love: “I shall name this beetle after my beloved wife.”

The Art of Naming takes us on a surprising and fascinating journey, in the footsteps of the discoverers of species and the authors of names, into the nooks and crannies and drawers and cabinets of museums, and through the natural world of named and not-yet-named species.


$29.95 T ISBN: 9780262037761 312 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 61 b&w illus.


$16.95 T ISBN: 9780262537032 312 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 61 b&w illus.


Elisabeth Lauffer.


  • Modern biologists have trouble with names. They can't keep up with the 20,000 species of living things newly recognized each year, not to mention the estimated millions that remain to be discovered. That's the focus of this brilliant book by Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum in Berlin... Taxonomy, as revealed through Ohl's expert commentary, displays both the wisdom and the wit of the artful scientists who practice it.

    Natural History

  • The history and practice of scientific naming is both presented as well as mused extensively upon with the intention of showing that far from being rigid and staid, the way in which names are assigned to species, as well as occasionally modified, is rich in creativity, cleverness, humor, and even at times used for the settling of scores.

    The Well-Read Naturalist

  • Detailed but engaging...The rules and traditions of taxonomy prove more flexible, even chaotic, than the lay reader is apt to imagine.

    Scott McLemee

    Inside Higher Ed

  • Ohl is at his best in the book's final chapters, where he merges linguistics, philosophy, and biology together in a consideration of some particularly unusual matters of taxonomy.

    Gregory R. Goldsmith



  • The Art of Naming is not just for biologists who might be revisiting, or discovering, the origins of animal names. It is also for historians of modern science, for linguists, for anthropologists, for any curious readers ready to be impressed by the human urge to classify and its attendant foibles and vanities.

    Vaclav Smil

    Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba; author of Growth and Energy and Civilization

  • If you've ever wondered what's in a name—and haven't we all?—then The Art of Naming is the book for you. Smart, funny, packed with tales of scientific feuds, enraged politicians, outsized adventure, and egos, Michael Ohl reminds us that in the wonder of name lies the wonder of life on Earth itself.

    Deborah Blum

    Pulitzer Prize winner; author of The Poisoner's Handbook

  • Michael Ohl's brilliant book shows that although systematic biologists are sometimes said to be crazy, it's the other way around; taxonomy is a psychoactive science that prevents madness.

    Fredrik Sjöberg

    author of The Fly Trap

  • In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl takes the reader behind the scenes with biodiversity explorers to reveal the fascinating and surprisingly human practice of naming species. An engaging storyteller, Ohl draws upon authoritative knowledge and unexpected historical tales to bring to life, with clarity and wit, this little-known corner of science. As millions of species face the threat of extinction, there is no better time to celebrate the diverse kinds of life on Earth and the sources of the names by which we know them.

    Quentin Wheeler

    President of ESF, New York's global environmental college; author of What on Earth?

  • Michael Ohl brings to life the scientific process of naming animals, and the fascinating people who name them, through a superb combination of storytelling and rigorous factual presentation. The Art of Naming is delightful.

    Justin Schmidt

    Southwestern Biological Institute & Department of Entomology, University of Arizona; author of The Sting of the Wild