What’s in a (binomial) name?

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What’s in a (binomial) name?

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Image: Nancy Vandermey (Wikipedia.org)

The story

The Sunda cloud leopard (Neofelis diardi) which lives in the forests of Indonesian islands was only named as a new species (distinct from the Neofelis nebulosa clouded leopard that lives on the Asian mainland) in 2007.
Now it has been confirmed that it exists as two sub species – one living on the island of Borneo (N. d. borneensis) and one that is Sumatran (N. d. diardi).

The confirmation came about after a team of scientists carried out genetic and molecular tests taken from blood samples as well as comparisons of fur patterns and skull shape.  The two sub-species are virtually impossible to tell apart from purely physical characteristics.

Teaching ideas and resource

This struck me as an interesting way of teaching about classification and speciation to KS4 and KS5 biology classes.

In order to teach what a binomial name means you can use the clouded leopards starter slide to show the two species of clouded leopard and ask the class what the names mean.  These two leopards belong to the same genus but are different species.  You can then discuss why new species are given binomial names and what we mean by a ‘species’ and ‘sub-species’.

The Sunda cloud leopard (Neofelis diardi) was only discovered to be a distinct species in 2007.  You could discuss the different techniques scientists use to confirm whether an organism is a new species or sub-species, why discoveries such as these are important to scientists (one reason is that every new species discovered and named increases our awareness of the biodiversity of the area it lives in which is important for conservation)

Why did the clouded leopard split into two distinct species?  One theory is that a volcanic eruption on Sumatra 75,000 years ago wiped out most clouded leopards but one group survived and colonised the Asian mainland.  The other group stayed in Borneo, becoming the Sundra clouded leopard.  The two subspecies may have evolved because glacial land bridges existed between the islands of Borneo and Sumatra and one group crossed it to colonise Sumatra and then got cut off as sea levels rose.

You can ask students to explain why living in slightly different locations like this will result in the evolution of different species.  Also, will the two Sundra sub-species eventually diverge enough to be classed as separate species?  Why might this happen and how long would it take?

Has anyone got any interesting ways that they use to teach this area of biology?  Please share by leaving a comment below.


News story from the BBC about the discovery

The process whereby a new species evolves is shown nicely in the simulation ‘An origin of species’