Lessons from a little fish

In northeastern Germany, about 75 km north of Berlin, a little lake sits nestled in the woods.  In the lake’s depths swims a little fish – a dwarf cisco, Coregonus fontanae.  In the fish’s name, there’s a story tucked away.

Coregonus fontanae is one of a pair of cisco species in Lake Stechlin. Around the world, ciscoes (like many other fish) have evolved pairs of ecologically distinct species sharing lakes – in this case, the shallow-water Coregonus albula and its descendent species, the deeper-water C. fontanaeC. albula is widespread across northern Europe, but C. fontanae occurs only in the 4 km2 or so of Lake Stechlin. It looks a lot like its ancestor, except for its dwarfism, and it was formally described and named only in 2003.

Michael Schulz and Jörg Freyhof, who discovered and named the new cisco species, had a choice.  They could have based the scientific name on geography – C. stechlinensis, anyone?  Or they could have chosen a name that was more descriptive, like Coregonus minimus.  Instead, they chose an eponymous name (one based on the name of a person).  Eponymous names are common in biology – consider, for instance, the flowering tree Magnolia (for Pierre Magnol, an 18th-century French botanist), or the lemur Microcebus berthae (for the Malagasy primatologist Berthe Rakotosamimanana).  Naming a species eponymously is an opportunity to be creative.  It’s an opportunity to express one’s interests, one’s admiration or one’s love for the eponymous person (occasionally, even, one’s disdain for the eponymous person). It’s an opportunity, too, to teach – because the name can draw attention to the person being honoured.  That’s what happened for me, with Coregonus fontanae.

The name Coregonus fontanae honours the German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane (1819-1898).  Fontane was born in Neuruppin, not far at all from Lake Stechlin, and his novels expressed his love for the people and landscapes of northeastern Germany.  His last novel, Der Stechlin, is set by the lake; so there’s a direct tie between the fish and the novelist.  If that were all there was to it, I’d be pleased enough by Schultz and Freyhof’s naming.  But there’s more to Fontane’s story, including a lesson about persistence and hope.

Fontane published his first work of prose at age 20. It was a short story about a young woman who lives with her blind brother and falls in love with a local preacher.  Fontane was thrilled with his accomplishment.  In his memoir he describes seeing his story in the pages of Berlin Figaro: “I was as if stunned, and had every reason to be so… I had been promoted to a writer of stories”.*  But Fontane didn’t get to bask in immediate adoration.  As the historian Gordon Craig put it:

“the mawkishness of this tale, and the interspersed verses that accompany it, is equalled by the lameness of its plot and the inertness of the style in which it is told, and [the protagonists] Clärchen and her brother are both so colourless that no one could have guessed that their creator had a future as a writer”.**


Fontane kept writing, though – publishing poetry, taking a job with the Prussian intelligence service writing propaganda, and writing travel books about Britain and his native Brandenburg.  It wasn’t until he was 57 years old that he returned to his avocation as a “writer of stories” – publishing his first novel in 1878.  He would become known as a fine novelist, with a reputation for strongly written female characters and complex exploration of the Prussian social systems of the day.  His novels were widely read and critically acclaimed – all because he didn’t give up.

Life is full of criticism and full of rejection.  We scientists know this well.  Reviewers criticize the words we toiled over. Journals reject our papers; publishers reject our book proposals; hiring committees reject our job applications; funding agencies reject our grant applications.  Science has no monopoly on rejection, though; a pitcher’s first fastball may be crushed over the fence, and the kiln may shatter a first stab at pottery.  Fontane’s journey from mawkish tale to success as a novelist has an important lesson for everyone: don’t give up after criticism, after failure, after rejection.  First attempts often fall flat; and we grow as scientists, writers, and people through our responses to the difficulties we encounter.

What about Coregonus fontanae? There’s a sort of evolutionary persistence there too, because its origin as a distinct species was never assured. That’s because C. fontanae arose from its ancestor within the confines of Lake Stechlin, through the process of “ecological speciation”. Many local populations begin this process: exposed to slightly different conditions, they begin to accumulate genetic differences from other members of their species. But without sharp geographic boundaries to isolate them, those diverging populations often collapse back into conformity with their ancestor. Genes that confer a local advantage, you see, can be swamped as locally adapted individuals mate with the more common variants around them. Ecological speciation often fails. Perhaps—in fact, most likely—it failed repeatedly in Lake Stechlin before succeeding with Coregonus fontanae.

I’d never heard of Theodor Fontane, or his story of persistence, until I happened across Coregonus fontanae.  Some scientists dislike eponymous naming, arguing that all species names should be descriptive and that eponymous names become uninteresting as soon as we’ve forgotten their eponyms.  To me, though, it’s the opposite: an eponymous name is a thread waiting to be tugged on, a blaze suggesting a path to be followed.  An eponymous name is an invitation to learn, and I’m glad to have encountered the failure, and the success, of Theodor Fontane.

If your first try at something falls flat, think of Coregonus fontanae—and Theodor Fontane.

The story of Coregonus fontanae doesn’t appear in “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”, my new book about eponymous scientific names. But lots of similar stories do: stories about the people for whom species are named, and stories about the people who did the naming. There are funny stories and poignant ones; infuriating stories and inspiring ones. Give it a read!

© Stephen Heard 2020. A slightly different version of this post first appeared on the Yale University Press blog, on March 17 2020.

Image: Coregonus fontanae © Jörg Freyhof (used by permission).

*^Does anyone else recall feeling like this when their very first scientific paper, or first poem, or first short story, is published?  I remember seeing my first scientific paper in print, and I felt just like Fontane.  (Also just like Fontane: I write a lot better now.)  Quoted by Gordon Craig in Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (Oxford University Press, 1999).



4 thoughts on “Lessons from a little fish

  1. Caitlyn Cardetti (@CaitlynCardetti)

    I hate eponyms but this a cute story. And you’re right, eponyms are a fun way to learn some interesting history. I really like the stories behind naming the different nucleosides. Although I still prefer names of molecules/proteins/etc to be based on their function. I guess I can excuse ecology more because maybe that necessity of functionality in the name isn’t as useful (although correct me if I’m wrong, this isn’t my field).


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, there are those who don’t like species eponyms either – arguing that species names should describe the species (usually using Latin or Greek words connected to morphology or geographic distribution). The funny thing is that’s what Latin names were required to do, before Linnaeus invented our current system, and it didn’t work very well – the “names” got to be paragraphs long and cumbersome. So now the name is strictly an indexing device. It can still be descriptive if very short, sure; but it doesn’t have to be; and we have hundreds of species named “flava” (“yellow”),which is a little dull. So I love eponyms, but I recognize your point of view is common too!

      Liked by 1 person

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