What’s in a Name? The Process of Naming Species

January 6, 2017

Why are there Fried Egg and Purple People Eater jellyfish? How did the Johnny Cash tarantula get its name? Why do some species have multiple common names, and why do they all have Latin names? What’s in a Name? shows how scientists identify and name species, how names relate to scientific research and the progression of knowledge, and how collections play a crucial role in the process of naming.

What’s in a Name is a Harvard Museum of Natural History project that explores the world of species identification and naming through interactive exhibits and online resources.


There are four interactive What’s in a Name? exhibit stations in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Honeybees explains bees’ names, pollination, lifestyle, relatives–and more

Dimetrodon, from “two measures of teeth,” was aptly named. This kiosk covers a range of topics about this fearsome 300-million-year old predator, including classification, discovery, history, and general description

Jellies abound, with a range of size, appearance, and fascinating/curious names. The jelly display details their naming process, their lives in a changing ocean, and why they are increasingly called “jellies,” rather than “jellyfish.”

Poison ivy as a food source? This is one of several topics covered in this kiosk, along with the plant’s name origins, relatives, and dermatitis reactions.


Information about species and their names appears on the What’s in a Name? website.

Species Stories

Stories about eight species and their names. Visit the website to learn more about E.coli and the dodo, pangolins and the sugar maple, and the mysterious Yeti crab among others.


A 63-page electronic publication, What’s in a Name? Biological Classification and Scientific Naming, is available on the website. It includes an introduction to scientific naming and detailed chapters on all the organisms featured in this project.


Videos from the four interactive exhibit stations in the Harvard Museum of Natural History are available on the website.

Visit the What's in a Name? website to see the project website and ebook.

The What’s in a Name? project is a partnership among Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC), the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), as represented by the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. It was made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

About the Project Partners

Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. Its mission is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. Its grant making, policy development, and research help libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive. 

Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC) is a consortium of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences museums. HMSC comprises the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, the Harvard Semitic Museum, and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. HMSC’s mission is to foster curiosity and a spirit of discovery in visitors of all ages, enhancing public understanding of and appreciation for the natural world, science and human cultures. 

Encyclopedia of Life (EOL)is a free, online resource for species information.  The EOL Learning + Education Group, based at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, works with partner organizations to create or foster the development of educational tools and materials that encourage collaboration, participation, and in-depth exploration about biodiversity by learners worldwide.  For ideas about how to use EOL in education, visit EOL Learning + Education.

Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)is an international consortium of the world’s leading natural history libraries that have collaborated to digitize the public domain literature documenting the world’s biological diversity, resulting in the single, largest, open-licensed source of biodiversity literature. In partnership with the Internet Archive and through local digitization efforts, the BHL has digitized millions of pages of taxonomic literature. The Ernst Mayr Library at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard is a founding member of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, 361 days/year. Regular admission: adults $12; seniors and students, $10; youth ages 3–18, $8; under 3 free. For directions, exhibitions, free public lectures and events, visit the website or call 617.495.3045.



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Press contact:

Blue Magruder, Harvard Museums of Science & Culture




See also: Press Release