Category Archives: Latin names

Should Latin names of species always be descriptive?

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

Millipede (Taylor’s Version)

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

Taxonomy as activism

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

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! Continue reading

A year in the life of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle

Warning: navel-gazing

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

Is “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” political? Sure, and I’m unrepentant.

They say you shouldn’t read your (book/album/movie) reviews, and I suppose they have a point.*

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, my book about eponymous scientific names and what they reveal about science and society, has been out long enough to have accumulated half a dozen Amazon reviews. (Incidentally, one easy thing you can do that really helps a small-time author out is to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Here are some more easy things you can do.)  I’m happy that overall, people have enjoyed the book (and I think you’d enjoy it to, so stop reading this post and get to your nearest public library or bookstore).  But I’m intrigued by one theme that crops up a few times: the book is “political”.

It really is a theme. Continue reading

Wonderful Latin Names: Allobates niputidea

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. Continue reading

Klaas’s cuckoo and the joys of old literature

A couple of weeks ago, Klaas’s cuckoo and I were featured on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog. You should go read that post – especially the part about Klaas’s cuckoo and the origins of its name.  But here’s a little context.

It’s fashionable in some circles to bemoan the fact that many scientists* rarely cite literature older than a decade or two. There are, of course, many reasons older papers go uncited. Continue reading

A new (and unfortunate) record: the longest Latin name

Everyone likes a world record, right? Meet the newly described myxobacterium Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis. That’s right: 73 letters (68 if you count by Welsh orthography, treating ‘ch’ and ‘ll’ as digraphs).  The previous (probable*) record holder, the soldier fly Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, is only 42 letters, so I think we have a winner by somewhat more than a nose. (The record for shortest name, by the way, is held by Yi qi among others. Because genus and species names must have at least 2 letters each, this record can never be broken.)

So, authorship team**, achievement unlocked.

Is this a good Latin name or a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good Latin name? Continue reading

Why don’t we capitalize taxonomic names used as adjectives?

Sometimes important matters keep me up at night: how we’ll end the pandemic, how I can best contribute to the fight against climate change, what I should cook for dinner tomorrow. Other times, it’s the little mysteries.

The beautiful dragonfly above, the lined hooktail, is a member of the dragonfly family Gomphidae.  Or, if I were to phrase that differently, the lined hooktail is a beautiful gomphid dragonfly.  Did you notice the peculiarity there?  “Gomphidae” (noun), but “gomphid” (adjective). Why? Continue reading