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
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
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
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
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
I’ve written a lot here on Scientist Sees Squirrel about my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. That is, I’ve written a lot about the book’s subject (eponymous Latin names; or, those Latin names that honour people).* I haven’t written as much about the illustrations. It’s time to rectify that, and I’m thrilled that I can point you to a new online exhibition of Emily Damstra’s wonderful illustrations, and an interview with Emily and me about our experience working together.
I knew from the start that Charles Darwin’s Barnacle needed illustrations. Continue reading
Many of Earth’s species bear scientific names based on the names of people – for instance, Charles Darwin’s barnacle (Regioscalpellum darwini) and David Bowie’s spider (Heteropoda davidbowie). My new book explores some of the things we can learn from such “eponymous” scientific names. These names let us see something of the quirks and personalities of the scientists who engage in the creative act of naming. They also open a window on who scientists think might deserve the honour (well, usually it’s an honour) of having a species named after them. There are a lot of things you can see through that window. One of them has to do with diversity.
I don’t mean biodiversity, although it’s true enough that the Earth’s incredible biodiversity is what provides the window of naming in the first place. Instead, I mean diversity of people. Who are the people who have species named after them? Perhaps not surprisingly, answering that question reveals a scientific community with a longstanding diversity problem. Continue reading
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. fontanae. C. 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. Continue reading