I have a new favourite frog.
I’m late to this, as it was described and named 13 years ago (and makes regular rounds on Twitter), but I’m rather enamoured with the western Colombian frog Allobates niputidea. Not because of its looks: it’s a small brown frog with a stripe, looking almost exactly like its sister species A. talamancae and, less specifically, rather a lot like dozens upon dozens of small brownish frogs everywhere. But its name: chef’s kiss.
Taran Grant, André Acosta, and Marco Rada named A. niputidea. It’s not a descriptive name, or a geographic one, or an eponymous one (although I do love me a good eponymous name). Instead, they explain in a deadpan sort of way, “the specific epithet is…
the name commonly applied by Colombian herpetologists to this and other small, brown frogs of unknown identity”. If you speak some rather, um, “colloquial” Spanish, you’ll know that ni puta idea means “no idea”. Well, no. It’s best translated as “no f**king idea”.
I giggled, because I’m 12 years old inside. I suppose there will be some very serious minded naturalists out there who think this is a terrible name, trivializing biodiversity or the work of taxonomists or the knowledge of local herpetologists.* But it seems to me if any trivializing is being done, it’s being done by those who interpret the name that way, not by the naming itself; and some innocent (well, not quite innocent) amusement is a welcome thing in science. Or it should be.
It’s not just my inner 12-year-old, though. A. niputidea can remind us of something important. Earth has some spectacularly striking and beautiful species: birds of paradise, poison-arrow frogs, glass-wing butterflies. But it also has a whole heck of a lot of less charismatic species, and a lot of species that are very hard to tell apart. Birders talk wryly about LBJs (“little brown jobs”). There’s the spectacular panther chameleon, but there are also hundreds of small greenish or brownish lizards, some of them distinguished by scale counts and not a lot more. And I’m an entomologist, and I know that there are probably 5,000 species of blackish ground beetles in the world, all looking rather similar and distinctly unprepossessing (except, of course, to another of their kin). These less charismatic species struggle for conservation attention, but they’re just as important in their ecosystems as their flamboyant sisters. Not only that: their similarity, in morphology or ecology or both, raises interesting and important questions about the way the Earth’s biodiversity originates and is regulated.** If Allobates niputidea can speak up, in its etymologically amusing way, for the biodiversity that doesn’t make the cover of National Geographic, that seems like a real contribution.
Some day, I’ll go to Colombia, and find a little brown frog. When someone asks me what it is I’ll be able to say (after checking the immediate vicinity for impressionable 5-year-olds) “it’s Allobates niputidea”. I can assure you, I am going to enjoy that very, very much.
© Stephen Heard January 26, 2021
Image: Allobates niputidea © Jorge Díaz Pérez, used by permission
*^Although since the authors are local herpetologists, that particular objection would seem misguided. Surely they get to poke fun at themselves? Surely we all do?
**^About which we have considerably more than ni puta idea, but considerably less than the understanding we’d like to have.