Wonderful Latin names: Spurlingia darwini

Photo: Spurlingia forsteriana, from the collection of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, Leiden (photo released to public domain).  No photos of S. darwini appear to be online.

“How many species have been named for Charles Darwin?”, I wondered a couple of hours ago, before tumbling down an internet rabbithole looking for the answer.  The answer, as I’m sure you’d guess, is a lot.  This paper lists about 260 animal taxa named for Darwin (I’m excluding the ones named after places that had in their turn been named after Darwin).  But there are plenty of plants, too, so the best answer I can find to my question is the maddeningly imprecise “hundreds”.

Among those hundreds, the Australian land snail Spurlingia darwini caught my eye.  Well, not the snail itself; there doesn’t seem to be an image of it on the internet*.  But the name caught my eye.  I was grabbed first by the realization that Spurlingia is really fun to say, and Spurlingia darwini rolls off the tongue very nicely (although perhaps not quite as nicely as Upupa epops).  But once I’d said it out loud a few times, I moved on to wondering just who or what Spurling was, to be immortalized in the name Spurlingia.

It turns out that Spurlingia is named for a William Spurling, who was loosely affiliated with the great Victorian ornithologist John Gould.  Gould, appropriately enough to my story, had connections with Darwin: it was Gould who received and identified Darwin’s bird collections from the Beagle voyage.  It was Gould, in fact, who realized that what we now call Darwin’s finches were all close relatives  – not, as Darwin had thought, a hodgepodge of blackbirds, finches, and other groups.  (They’re also not finches. They’re tanagers.)  Gould received specimens from a network of collectors around the globe.  Among these was Frederick Strange, who collected in Australia but about whom rather little is known**.  In October of 1854, Strange brought a party of collectors to Middle Percy Island off Australia’s northeastern coast.  The party included the botanist Walter Hill, an aboriginal man named Deliapee, and three assistants: Henry Gittings, William Spurling, and a third man whose last name was Shinks and whose first name appears lost to history.  The party had been collecting specimens of all sorts through northern Australia, with molluscan shells well represented.  However, the visit to Middle Percy proved to be a mistake, as they were set upon by a party of aboriginal men, and Strange, Gittings, Shinks, and Spurling were killed. Strange was just 28; Gittings was 20; Shinks and Spurling were probably at the young end of that range.

Nobody now can have any idea why the four collectors were killed, but previous European visitors to the Percy Islands had not behaved well. This point was presumably lost on the colonial authorities, who sent a ship the next year to find and arrest the perpetrators.  Three aboriginal men were arrested and sent for trial (Noonan 2016).  Rather surprisingly, they were acquitted for lack of evidence.  Sadly and not surprisingly, it seems likely that they died before being returned to their homes.  As for the collectors: Spurling’s body was recovered and buried at Port Curtis, Queensland, but the fate of the others is obscure. Little more seems to be known about any of them.

Our picture of the Victorian naturalists who scoured the globe for new species and new understanding tends to be a picture of Darwin, Bates, Wallace, and others who had long careers, came from educated or at least prosperous backgrounds, and left written accounts of their travels.  That picture is woefully inadequate.  For every Darwin or Bates or Wallace, there were likely dozens of Spurlings: unheralded, likely uneducated, and largely unremembered.  (There were surely also dozens of Deliapees, local assistants who, as non-Europeans, weren’t even considered worthy of much comment.)  Yes, Darwin and Bates and Wallace are remembered in part because they made outsized contributions to the development of science.  But they didn’t do that alone, and it seems fitting for us to remember the Spurlings too.

That’s why Spurlingiana is now my favourite genus of snails, and Spurlingiana darwini my favourite species***.  In naming the genus, Iredale (1933) had this to say:

There have been very few actual martyrs in the cause of conchological science so that the name Spurlingia will recall the devoted young Spurling who was murdered on Percy Island, Queensland, while shell collecting with Strange.

Perhaps “martyr” is a little strong, but like Iredale, I’d like to honour not just the long careers like Darwin’s but also those cut short.  And how better to honour Spurling than to link his name with Darwin’s in a snail?

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) January 26, 2017

Related posts:

My major sources for the history above were:

  • Australian National Herbarium 2005. Strange, Frederick (1826-1854). Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, Biographical Notes
  • Brazier, J. 1872. Descriptions of eight new Australian land-shells.  Zool. Soc. London 1871:639-642. 
  • Gee, J. et al. 2009-2015. Murdered in Australia 10.1854 (thread on British-Genealogy.com).
  • Iredale, T. 1933. Systematic notes on Australian land shells. Records of the Australian Museum 19: 37–59.
  • Meston, A. 1895. Geographic history of Queensland. Queensland Government Printer, Brisbane.
  • Miličić, D. et al. 2011. How many Darwins? List of animal taxa named after Charles Darwin.  Natura Montenegrina 10:515-532.
  • Noonan, P. 2016. “Sons of Science”: Remembering John Gould’s Martyred Collectors. Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 21:28-42.

*^Hence my use of its congener Spurlingia forsteriana as a featured image.  The original description of S. darwini held that it was “allied to” S. forsteriana, and the differences among Spurlingia species appear subtle to my non-malacological eye.

**^Although according to one biography, “we know that Strange was semi-literate from a note he sent Gould and that he mismanaged his affairs and was financially incompetent”.  Let this be a caution: we do not get to chose the things for which we are remembered.

***^The species was actually described by Brazier (1872) in the fittingly-but-rather-too-obviously-named genus Helix, but later transferred to Spurlingia.

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6 thoughts on “Wonderful Latin names: Spurlingia darwini

  1. John

    To get at your question for plants, if you or someone you know is more clever at coding than I am, you could get an answer pretty easily by datamining the Plant List (http://www.theplantlist.org/). That website is, as they say, “a working list of all plant species.” Unfortunately, they don’t let you search just an epithet, which is really what your question is probably after, but you can search for genera named for Darwin (or at least starting with Darwin; it doesn’t rule out placenames, etc). This can be seen here: http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl1.1/search?q=Darwin*
    and results in four genera, though only two of them are not in synonomy, and a total of 103 species names in those genera (only 57 of which are not in synonomy at present). I suppose depending on definitions, those species are or are not named for Darwin.

    The only other plant names databases that are easily searchable (that I use regularly enough to know how to use them), are USDA PLANTS (includes all plants in North America north of Mexico and some US overseas territories) and TROPICOS (which claims to have 1.3 million scientific names stored in it). Searching PLANTS for epithets containing Darwin results in two names (one in synonomy). Running the same search in TROPICOS results in 110 names, but includes named hybrids and subspecies/varieties (and of those 106 are not in synonomy). It does not include the two names from PLANTS, interestingly enough.

    So if you count all the non-synonomized names in genera named for Darwin, and lump the TROPICOS and PLANTS names, that comes to a total of 164 Darwin names in plants, but the real number is likely higher (again, could be found by datamining the Plant List).

    Fun stuff!

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  2. Matthew Clapham

    I love these odd stories that pop up in old papers from time to time! There’s a fossil brachiopod named Meekella garnieri, named by F. Bayan in 1874. In his paper, he describes how the fossil was collected by “our unfortunate compatriot” M. Francis Garnier during the course of his voyage that ended in “such a regrettable catastrophe.” The fossils arrived in Paris “at the same time as the fatal news of M. Garnier’s death”! Here’s the story of Francis Garnier, who was hacked to death by mercenaries while trying to basically single-handedly conquer Vietnam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Garnier

    There are also at least 25 fossil species named for Darwin, with a decent number from Australia (especially Tasmania), where Darwin himself also collected and named fossils.

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