“A year ago, May 1902, I had a peculiar entomological experience.” That, believe it or not, is the opening sentence of a scientific paper –Annie Trumbull Slosson’s 1903 paper in the Canadian Entomologist, “A Coleopterous Conundrum”. This short paper had some unanticipated consequences. It’s an amusing story, and also a bit of a cautionary tale. Continue reading
Content warning: Discusses common names based on ethnic and other slurs and on the names of people with potentially upsetting histories.
Other warning: considerably longer than usual. But, I think, also considerably more interesting than usual.
Is the common name of a species (cougar, daisy, blue mussel, Swainson’s thrush) an unalterable part of our language, or can we change one? (We might want to, sometimes – most obviously, when a name is offensive.) The answer is more complicated than you might think. Today, a little background to explain those complications, and then some analysis of three cases where organizations have attempted to drive changes in common names.
We share the Earth with millions of other species, and they’re both fascinating (all of them!) and directly important to us (many of them). Continue reading
Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at the joint annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution and the Ecological Society of America. It was, admittedly, a weird one, and I thought I’d record a version of it for those who might have been interested but couldn’t be there in person.
My talk consisted of some reflections on creativity in science, and in writing about science. Continue reading
I’ve just read Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller’s fascinating biography of David Starr Jordan.* Jordan was a brilliant taxonomist of fishes, the founding President of Stanford University, and (sadly) a prominent and committed eugenicist. Miller’s biography explores his life and connects it to her own, and to some big philosophical questions, and it’s well worth reading. But you know how everyone sees the world through the lens of their own special little interests? Well, this sentence jumped out at me:
“I am on my way to behold the only fish in the entire sea that David Starr Jordan named after himself”.
Jordan named a lot of fish species – a couple of thousand, about 20% of the fish species known in his day. One of them, it would appear, is Agonomalus jordani. Did Jordan really name a fish for himself? Continue reading
We’ve just posted a new preprint! Like our recent funny-titles study, it’s a pandemic pivot project. Like our funny-titles study, it’s a little weird – but also exciting. I’ll tell you a bit about the preprint, and then use it to make a point about collaborations.
Have you ever wondered if names only label things, or if they also influence the way we think about those things? Continue reading
It’s an opinion I hear fairly often: those who give Latin (scientific) names to species should always make those names descriptive (this is often phrased as “so they tell you something about the organism”). It’s an opinion I often hear put rather forcefully, as if a well-educated biologist couldn’t possibly think anything else. Perhaps I’m just not well-educated enough, but it’s an opinion I don’t share. But there are interesting reasons why I don’t share it, why some folks do, and why there’s no simple answer to the question. Continue reading
That handsome critter above (the left-hand one) is Taylor Swift’s twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae – just named last month by Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek. It’s narrowly distributed in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee; but it might still look familiar, because its naming made a bit of a media splash (it is quite possibly, for example, the only millipede species to ever appear in Rolling Stone). Its namesake will certainly look familiar, as she makes a bit of a media splash about every other week.
In some circles, this naming will have led to some eye-rolling. Continue reading
Once upon a time, the Latin names of species were always descriptive (and always in Latin, for that matter, which they needn’t be now.). That system didn’t work very well*, and in the mid-18th century Linnaeus invented our modern system of binomial nomenclature. It’s surprising how many folks don’t realize that, arguably, the most important feature of this system was that it allowed names to be constructed in ways other than description: a species name could now refer to geography (Betula alleghaniensis) or habitat (Abudefduf saxatilis), recognize a person (Heteropoda davidbowie), or could even be a joke (Ytu brutus).**
Linnaeus also gave us the ability to use species names as activism. I’m not suggesting that he had this in mind, and I don’t know that he ever did it himself – the examples I know all come from the last 30 years or so. So most likely it’s an unintended consequence; but it’s a fascinating one. Continue reading
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! Continue reading
Charles Darwin’s Barnacle is a year old! Not the species – that’s probably a few million years old, or at least that’s a guess given the average lifespan of a species. And not the name “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle”, which is 138 years old (the deep-sea barnacle species Regioscalpellum darwini was originally described by Hoek in 1883 as Trianguloscalpellum darwini). It’s my book: my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider is a year old.* It’s a little hard to believe.
People often ask me how the book has sold. I don’t really know (because other than Amazon sales rankings, I have no data), although I can tell you that it spent exactly zero weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Continue reading