Fictional species, fictional names

For as long as humans have been telling stories, they’ve been making up creatures to populate them. Orcs and ents; snallygasters and golden snidgets; and many thousands more. Some stories give us only fleeting glimpses, while others paint their creatures in more detail. Only a few, though, give their creatures Latin (scientific) names. As you may have noticed, I’m fascinated by names and naming. So here are a few examples of fictional species that bear fictional Latin names. There’s no database of such things, so this is a quasirandom set I’ve run across recently. Do you know of more? Please add them, in the Replies!

Jack Aubrey’s Giant Tortoise, Testudo aubreii. In Patrick O’Brian’s historical-naval saga that begins with Master and Commander, naturalist Stephen Maturin travels the world as ship’s surgeon to Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey. In the third book, H.M.S. Surprise, Maturin stumbles across a giant tortoise, which he insists on collecting and plans to name after Aubrey.*  The tortoise is described as weighing around a ton (about 4 times the size of known giant tortoises), “and in comparison of him, your giants of Rodriguez and Aldabra are inconsiderable reptiles”. We even know something of its diet, as Maturin observed it feeding on the (real) fig species Ficus religiosa. The naming is quite plausible. Testudo was, at the time of the novel’s setting, the genus name for both Aldabra and Galapagos giant tortoises (now Aldabrachelys and Chelonoidis respectively); and the eponymous aubreii echoes other namings for captains of British vessels, such as the cardinalfish Apogon cookii for Captain James Cook.

The Naiad Hummingbird. The titular hummingbird of Jeff Vandermeer’s new novel Hummingbird Salamander is a medium-sized species with a spectacular migration (from British Columbia to Argentina). The ecology of the species is worked out in some detail – right down to changes in conformation of the heme group in its hemoglobin to enhance oxygen binding at high elevation. What about the name’s etymology? Vandermeer doesn’t specify, which means I get to take a shot at making it up. Unlike Testudo aubreii, the naiad hummingbird gets its own fictional genus, Selastrephes.  The Sela- could come from a variety of sources, but I suggest Latin sella, or saddle, referring to the shape of the purple patch of feathers under the humming bird’s bill. The streph- root is Greek, and means turning or twisting – appropriate for a bird whose capabilities include “backward flight, treading air, [and] maneuvering precisely in gusty wind”. And what of griffin? It could of course be a reference to the mythical flying beast, half lion and half eagle. But I prefer to think it’s an eponymous reference to Griffin Moss, the protagonist of Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine.** And so I’m declaring that it is – unless and until Jeff Vandermeer disabuses me of the notion. (Jeff?)

The Road Newt (Plethowen owena).  Hummingbird Salamander needs one of each, of course, so Vandermeer also invented the road newt, a denizen of mature forests in the northeastern U.S. It too comes with a fully worked out ecology, my favourite part of which is its two yellow stripes – produced by chromophores capable of flashing yellow at night. Plethowen shares the Greek root plethore- with the related genus Plethodon; it means fullness, or “full of”. The –wen is unclear; I’d like it to come from Proto-Indo-European wenh, meaning to wish or to love. If so, then Plethowen is full of love, which makes interesting insinuations about its mating behaviour.  The species epithet owena could derive from the Welsh name Owain, meaning noble-born; but as you’d probably guess, I prefer to think it’s eponymous again. The eponym? How about Maria Tallant Owen, the 19th-century American botanist. She compiled a detailed record of mid-19th century flora on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. That record is important today as a baseline for studies of biotic responses to climate change – an important theme of Hummingbird Salamander. Again, until Vandermeer corrects me, I’m choosing to believe my own fictional etymology. [UPDATE: Meghan Brown, who invented the natural history and the names (not, directly, Vandermeer) points out that I mistranscribed the species name. It’s omena, not owena, and the etymology is in her comment below. What a treat to have her chime in!]

The Tree-Climbing Octopus (Octopus arbori). Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation is set on a remote south Pacific island with some interesting flora and fauna. Among the fauna is the tree-climbing octopus, which is described as “extremely intelligent, and a cunning thief”, liable to drop from the trees onto one’s head and then rather difficult to pull off. We’re back to the O’Brian approach: the genus Octopus is real, named by Cuvier in 1798 with a rather obvious etymology; but arbori is Pratchett’s invention (and refers to the trees, of course).

The Sailfin Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus maritimus).  Again from Pratchett’s Nation, this time a novel subspecies of the saltwater crocodile C. porosus. The subspecies maritimus should mean “from the sea”, but I assume Pratchett meant instead to suggest that the crocodile is a mariner, because “it travels immense distances on the surface by means of a large skin and cartilage sail which it can, to some extent, steer”. I’m skeptical that such a major morphological innovation is consistent with subspecies status, so it would appear that the Crocodylus porosus complex is ripe for taxonomic revision.

The Lonesome Palm (Cocos nucifera solitaria). Another Pratchett-in-Nation subspecies, this time of coconut palm. C. nucifera solitaria secretes a toxin from its roots. This toxin affects only other palms, and is responsible for the well-known phenomenon of the tiny desert island with a single coconut palm to shade the wretched castaway. It is presumably self-pollinated.

In passing, I’d note that Pratchett’s approach, as always, is to write something that’s both ridiculous and real. While each of Nation’s three named species*** is funny and seems improbable at first glance, they also seem somehow familiar. Sure, there’s no real octopus that climbs trees, but there’s a fish that does. Sure, there’s no windsailing crocodile, but there’s a jellyfish. Sure, coconuts don’t secrete toxins from their roots to suppress competition, but plenty of other plants do (ecologists call this allelopathy). Pratchett is best known for his Discworld novels, and everything on the Discworld is ridiculous – but also with just a little thought, recognizable as a satiric take on the real world around us. (If you haven’t read Pratchett, here’s a primer from Jeremy Fox at Dynamic Ecology.)

Finally: what are the taxonomic implications of these fictional names? You might wonder (as I did) whether one of these fictional names would be usable later for a real species. The short answer is that yes, you could name a new hummingbird (or anything else) Selastrepes griffin without fear. A Latin name, once published, can’t be used over again for anything else; but the Code of Zoological Nomenclature is careful to note (Article 8.1.1) that a name is “published” only when it appears in a venue “issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record”.  H.M.S. Surprise, Hummingbird Salamander, and Nation are indeed public and permanent (copies are deposited in libraries), but as they aren’t intended as actual contributions to the scientific record, the names aren’t pre-empted for later use.  With any luck we’ll discover an actual tree-climbing octopus to take the name Pratchett coined, or a new hummingbird that could take the rather euphonious name Selastrephes griffin.

So, what other fictional Latin names do you know? And can you suggest etymologies for them?

© Stephen Heard  May 18, 2021.

 Did I spend far too long writing this post, given that it’s almost unbearably nerdy and that almost nobody else will care about it? Yes, yes I did. But was it immensely fun? Yes, yes it was.

 Thanks to Chris Cohen and Morgan Jackson for advice on the nomenclatural pre-emption issue. Thanks to Simon Leather for pointing me to his post on a similar topic (but with no overlap at all!)

 Images: Pacific tree octopus © Dru! via flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0.  This is, sadly, not Pratchett’s tree-climbing octopus (Octopus arbori), of which no known photograph exists. Instead, this is an equally fictional congener, Octopus paxarbolis, from British Columbia. This specimen appears to belong to an interesting subspecies: native to the interior, using freshwater, and a rather peculiar green. To my knowledge the ecology of this subspecies is nearly unstudied. Desert island by wixin_56k via pixabay.com CC 0.


*^Thanks, Google Books.  I haven’t actually read H.M.S. Surprise, as I find the Aubrey-Maturin books insufferably tedious. I know – many people find them brilliant. No book works for everybody.

**^Sabine has a rather handsome gull, or at least, she can borrow it from its actual eponym, Sir Edward Sabine.

***^There are many more species, just without Latin names. My favourite has to be the pantaloon birds, named for their white leg feathers, which are forever coughing up the bones of their prey and getting drunk on the islanders’ beer.

9 thoughts on “Fictional species, fictional names

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I resisted the temptation to re-read all of Pratchett just so I could check to see if he’d given any other species Latin names. Although maybe I should have resisted the temptation to resist that temptation.

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  1. Elizabeth Moon

    Great post. I’ve invented species in fantasy books, but since that wasn’t in a world that had English OR Latin, or for that matter anything but rudimentary science, didn’t give them Latin names. In the SF, But this is such fun, I will now do so. Prepare to meet _Pseudobufo-SK-3485 Baryshnikovei_ a subspecies of Flying Toads from the planet Slotter Key. Scientific surveys in multi-planet situations will need a standard way to give the native planet on which critters live, and the survey code is the fastest. These arboreal toads glide with ease from tree to tree, and in their mating ritual perform an aerial dance of great beauty. (Exact name of the famous Flying Toad subspecies may change by editorial fiat, of course. But at present P. baryshnikovei can be distinguished from P. nuryevei by the three blue stripes; P. nuryevei has two, slightly broader. They’re found on different islands, with….oh, never mind. I’ll go away now.)

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  2. Meghan Brown

    Hey there! Great post. I am the biologist that evolved the Naiad Hummingbird and the Road Newt for Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander. You’ll be pleased to know that the ‘griffin’ does indeed root to Griffin and Sabine but via an intermediary, my second-born child (who is part human, part spirit dancer). The species name of the newt is omena, with an ‘m’ not ‘w’, which is an Ojibwe word (maybe) meaning ‘could that really be true?’, and it is also the name of a village near my hometown where I was first captivated by Plethodons in elementary school. In the novel, the play on the genus name of the newt is a nod to my first-born child, Owen (who is part aquatic and part sentinel) and it also is a name with a literary root. Lots more I can share about the species’ names, but I was so pleased to read your ruminations. Thanks for linking to the natural history sheets where I’ve written lots of the ecological details!

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Ooh, thanks for this reply, and I am excited to have lucked into the Griffin and Sabine reference! Sorry to have mis-transcribed “omena” – I’ll make a note in the post steering folks to your comments. And the natural history sheets are fantastic!

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  3. albertonykus

    This is a pretty common practice in speculative biology projects. One of my favorite examples Theornis alfredhitchcocki, a eusocial bird that aggressively swarms intruders in big flocks, from the Speculative Dinosaur Project (which postulates a timeline in which the end-Cretaceous mass extinction did not occur).

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