(Image: Yi qi © 2015 Brian Choo. Thanks, Brian!)
Latin names can be wonderful for many reasons. So far, I’ve blogged about a bird whose name has rhythm, a fish with a fascinating etymology, and a butterfly named for a pioneering (and amazing) woman in entomology. Today’s entry is Yi qi, a newly described dinosaur whose name is interesting in origin and sound, and also wonderfully and surprisingly short.
Actually, the dinosaur is pretty wonderful too. Yi qi was a feathered theropod dinosaur, and it’s known from a single specimen collected in Jurassic rocks from China. That specimen is about the size of a large pigeon. In addition to feathers, it has two really odd features: a bony rod extending from each wrist, and sheets of membranous soft tissue that are preserved near the arms. The authors interpret these as wing membranes, supported by the rods much like the wings of some flying squirrels (or like the wings of bats, although those are supported by the fingers rather than by “extra” bones). While it’s hard to know from a single specimen, it looks like Yi qi either glided like a flying squirrel, or flew like a bat – and either way, there’s really nice convergence in structure and function. For more about Yi qi’s discovery and interpretation, I recommend Ed Yong’s blog post, here.
OK, this is a Wonderful Latin Names post, so two things about Yi qi’s name.
First: why “Yi qi” (pronounced “ee chee”)? Yi means “wing” and qi means “strange” in Mandarin (remember, not all “Latin” names come from Latin – and if you’re up for a challenge, see how many you can identify in this quiz). So Yi qi is the “strange winged” dinosaur. And strange it is, although quite possibly it seems so only because it’s the first of its kind to be discovered. After all, fossils with soft tissue preservation turn up infrequently, as so do fossils of very small animals. Perhaps the Jurassic skies were full of little flying-squirrel dinosaurs. It would be odd, wouldn’t it, if the Jurassic fauna was any less marvellous than ours today?*
Second: what’s up with just four letters? We’re used to Latin names being long – really long – and difficult to spell or pronounce. I work with a moth called Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis, which is 30 letters of mumbly horror; but Gnorimoschema is an amateur compared with what’s said to be the longest valid Latin name: the 42-letter soldierfly Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides.** Ouch.
So is Yi qi the shortest Latin name? Well, for an animal no shorter name is possible, because according to the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature (Articles 11.8 and 11.9), genus and species names must have at least two letters each. (Shorter names might be possible for plants, algae, and fungi shorter names, as I can’t find a proscription in the plant nomenclatural code, but I don’t know of any). As it turns out, though, the race for the shortest name is a tie***: the Great Evening Bat is Ia io, also just 4 letters (and the only Latin name I know without consonants). Yi qi and Ia io have a few things in common besides the succinctness of their names: both are from China, both are flying predators, and both fly on membranous stretched from their arms.
So, the next time you hear someone say they can’t deal with Latin names (undergraduates in my courses, for example, say this all the time), tell them about Yi qi. The name’s a marvel of concision just as its bearer is a marvel of evolution.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 1, 2015
*Which is not to say we didn’t already know some very cool Jurassic animals – pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, and our recently resurrected friend Brontosaurus, to name just a few. But because we have just a few fossils, spread over millions of years of history, our picture of the Jurassic – or any other period of the geologic past – doesn’t have the astonishing diversity you can see stepping outside your door any day in the present. There are undoubtedly many, many Jurassic marvels still to be discovered.
**The 50-letter name Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis was proposed for an amphipod from Lake Baikal in Russia, but was later invalidated by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
***With honourable mention to the Australian sphecid wasp Aha ha, at 5 letters.