Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature
Mark Isaak
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Misc.: Interesting Stories

Agrias amydon philatelica (butterfly) The tropical genus Agrias is a favorite with collectors. When DeVries named this subspecies in 1980, he probably was bemoaning the fact that all the "stamp collectors" among lepidopterists would want a specimen.
Astraptes audax, A. augeas, A. favilla, A. fruticibus, A. inflatio, A. procrastinator, A. synecdoche Brower 2010 (skipper butterflies) DNA barcoding is a controversial method for distinguishing otherwise similar species solely on the basis of their DNA. These names reflect aspects of DNA barcoding for species recognition: augeas for the resultant labor implied by the barcoding; favilla ("smouldering embers") "The species is named in recognition of the skipper taxonomist John M. Burns", or perhaps in recognition of traditional taxonomy. fruticibus ("from the bushes") refers to the fact that resulting species do not form distinct tree-like groups; inflatio for the large number of resulting species; procrastinator for the time elapsed between discovery and description; synecdoche for a part standing for the whole; audax means 'bold'; its relevance is left to the reader. The author of these names (and three others), though skeptical of their biological reality, notes that the distinctions exist in the literature, and the names are given for "taxonomic housekeeping." [Syst. Biodivers. 8: 485]
CATCH22 (chromosome 22q11.2 microdeletion) This name, from "cardiac anomaly, T-cell deficit, clefting and hypocalcaemia," was abandoned due to its no-win connotations. [J. Med. Genet. 36: 737-738 (1999); cited in Nature 439: 266 (2006).]
Centropyge narcosis Pyle & Randall (narc angelfish) Dr. Richard Pyle was diving deep while breathing air. This causes nitrogen narcosis, a state similar to alcohol intoxication or nitrous oxide inhalation. Back at the dive boat, he was asked if he collected anything, and he said "No, nothing." But when he looked into his collecting bucket, he noticed that he had indeed collected several specimens of this new species. Since his narcosis level was so high that he did not remember collecting them, the fish was named C. narcosis.
Chionoecetes oiliqo (Saatuaq crab) In 1993, Greenland issued a 7.25-krone stamp showing a picture of a crab and this scientific name. However, the crab's correct species name is C. opilio; the stamp was printed with a mirror reversal of the specific epithet. A corrected stamp was printed soon after.
Clericus polydenominata (Dog-Collared Sombre Blackbird) In 1963, Frank A. Goodliffe published a description of this animal in Bokmakierie, a magazine for birdwatchers. It was, fairly obviously, a humorous satire. Here are some excerpts: "Identification: Similar to common laity but plumage and behaviour should serve to differentiate. Plumage black with narrow white collar--unbroken at throat. Feet black, of leathery appearance. Beak pink--often with blueish tint during winter months. When in groups are often seen with wings folded behind rump. [...] Habits: Usually found congregating with flocks of common laity, the females of which are frequently seen with plumage of vivid colours. Nesting: This usually occurs close to old buildings with spires. They are usually very friendly and may be seen around nesting sites of common laity at tea-time. [...] Call: The voice is distinctive, commencing 'Brrrrr--rethren' and continuing low and pleasant--often prolonged. Usually sings in congregations." The joke would likely have stopped there, except that the 1964 Zoological Record included this species in its listings, placing it in the family Icteridae (troupials or American orioles). In 1967, M. A. Traylor privately published a booklet continuing the joke, among other things suggesting that the bird would more suitably be placed in the family of bishop birds. [Dance, 1975, p. 82]
Coelopleurus exquisitus Coppard & Schultz, 2006 (sea urchin) This species first came to notice after being listed for auction on eBay. Marine biologist Simon Coppard was directed to the site, did not recognize the species, and investigated further. Immediately after publication of the description [Zootaxa 7], the value of specimens on eBay jumped from $8 to $138.
Cypraea amethystea L. (cowry) and Paplilio ecclipsis L. (butterfly) Both of these were named on the basis of fakes. The Papilio was a Papilio (= Gonepteryx) rhamni "brimstone" butterfly with spots pained on its wings. The Cypraea was a common Arabic cowry (Cypraea arabica) with the surface rubbed down to reveal a different colored layer. [Dance, 1975, p. 84, 90]
Edithinella doliarius Janssen 2006 (fossil gastropod) Arie Janssen wanted to dedicate a new mollusc species to Pisidium (freshwater clam) expert Hans Kuiper. Not having a classical education, he relied on a Dutch-Latin dictionary to find a Latin equivalent of "Kuiper" ("Cooper" in English), and named the species Edithinella calumniator. To improve his English writing, he then sent the manuscript to a colleague, who commented, "But why do you call him an intriguer?" "Kuiper" has two meanings in Dutch, and Janssen had unwittingly chosen the Latin term for the wrong one. Fortunately, he discovered it before publication, and revised to the name to E. doliarius, which is the correct Latin for the cooper profession. [Basteria, suppl. 3, 45-48.]
Esemephe Steiner, 1980 (darkling beetle) On an expedition to the Andes concentrating on looking for potential control agents for Mexican bean beetles, one of the botanists used the exclamation, "Shit, man, f***!" whenever anything went wrong. He did this so often that the trip came to be known among its members as the SMF Expedition. Steiner discovered this new species of beetle on that expedition and realized that the spelled-out acronym contained parts of two Greek words that applied to the beetle. The published etymology says, "a neologism (gender feminine) derived from two Greek words, essymenos (hurrying or eager), in reference to behavior, and ephestris (mantle or outer garment), in reference to the flattened, expanded flange that encircles the body." [Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 82: 388] But now you know the full story.
Furia infernalis L. (worm) Linnaeus once received a painful bite on the arm by an unidentified creature. His arm swelled up, and he became seriously ill for some time. A few years later, Linnaeus decided that the cause was a tiny worm described by his student Daniel Solander, and he named the worm Furia infernalis, the Fury from Hell. He wrote that it fell from the air, penetrated the bodies of animals, and caused excruciating pain. Incidents involving this worm were reported for nearly 100 years after that. But no one ever found a specimen. Now it is generally agreed that the worm never existed, and that Linnaeus had been bitten by a horsefly.
Gazella granti roosevelti (Roosevelt's gazelle),
Hippotragus niger rooseveltien (Roosevelt's sable antelope; extremely rare, last legally shot in 1912) On the 21 April 1909, Teddy Roosevelt's safari set off from Mombasa, Kenya. By the time the entourage arrived in Khartoum 8 months later, they had slaughtered 5,013 mammals, 4,453 birds, 2,322 reptiles and amphibians and similar numbers of fish, invertebrates, shells, and plants. The skins, etc. were sent to the Smithsonian; among these were Roosevelt's gazelle and Roosevelt's sable.
hectocotylus Some male cephalopods have a long coiled arm which carries a spermatophore and breaks off inside the female during copulation. When first discovered, it was thought that this arm was a type of parasitic worm, and it was described as such (Delle Chiaje, 1825), complete with drawings of the imagined internal anatomy. The author later admitted his mistake. This name continues to be used today for the modified reproductive arm of male cephalopods.
Heikea japonica von Siebold, 1824 (crab) The carapace of these crabs looks like the scowling face of a samurai warrior, and it is locally believed that the crabs are reincarnations of the spirits of the Heike warriors who, defeated in battle, threw themselves into the sea, as told in The Tale of the Heike. Some scientific folklore gives these crabs as an example of natural selection, as Japanese fishermen supposedly released the crabs with the most human-looking faces, allowing them to pass their genes to the next generation. This story, however, is almost certainly urban legend. The crabs are too small to interest fishermen, and other crabs far from fisheries also have human-looking faces. The pattern on the crab is instead an example of pareidolia, the tendency for the human brain to see faces in many abstract patterns.
Hildoceras Hyatt, 1876 (Jurassic ammonoid) According to legend, Saint Hilda was told to found an Abbey on the plains of Whitby, England, but she found the place infested with snakes. After her prayers, the snakes coiled up and turned to stones, becoming the ammonoid fossils, sometimes called snakestones, that are common to the area. Victorian fossil dealers would often carve a snake's heads on the fossils.
Homo floresiensis Brown et al., 2004 ("Hobbit" fossil hominin) The name submitted in the original paper was Sundanthropus floresianus, "man from Sunda region from Flores". The referees, though, said it should be genus Homo, and one of them said floresianus actually means "flowery anus", so that had to change, too.
Jumala Friele, 1882 (whelk) Friele proposed this name thinking it was the name of an old Lapp deity. He discovered about ten years later that it was instead the Lapp name for the Christian God and proposed that Ukko (the Finnish god of winds) be substituted. Jumala, however, had priority. Joshua Baily and Myra Keen, in 1955, appealed to the ICZN to suppress Jumala, as the name is "calculated to give offense on religious grounds." The Commission suppressed it by 13 to 11 vote. [Ng, 1994, Raffles Bull. Zool. 42: 511.]
Kryoryctes cadburyi 2005 (Cretaceous mammal) Tim Rich, leading a dinosaur dig at Dinosaur Cove, Australia, offered a reward of a kilo of chocolate for a particularly good fossil. (The other food on the expedition was terrible.) But evidence of mammals among dinosaurs in Australia is even rarer. Asked what finding a mammal fossil would merit, Tim answered a cubic meter of chocolate. One of the undescribed bones from that dig, when eventually examined closely, turned out to be from a mammal. Tim was dismayed by the price of a ton of chocolate, but the local Cadbury factory offered to make good on the bet. Since the individual who discovered the bone was by then unknown, the whole team was invited. Making chocolate in a cubic meter piece is impossible, but Cadbury made a cubic meter of cocoa butter and then let the people loose in a room full of chocolate bars. (Kryoryctes means "cold digger", referring to the polar latitude where the creature died 104 million years ago, and the fact that the animal was adapted for digging.)
Laniarius liberatus (Bulo Burti boubou) This is the first bird whose type specimen is a DNA sample. The bird was released to the wild after capture, hence the name. It turns out to be a very rare color morph of L. erlangeri.
Leptocephalus "Leptocephalus" is a term originally applied to a group of small, flattened, semitransparent fishes, often with small heads. They were classified as a distinct group, usually in the genus Leptocephalus, until the mid-19th century. Then the idea took hold that leptocephali were larvae of something else. In 1864, Theodore Gill suggested that they were larval eels, and specifically that Leptocephalus morrisii was the young of Conger conger, the conger eel. Other leptocephali raised in an aquarium metamorphosed into eels; Leptocehalus brevirostris became Anguilla anguilla, the freshwater eel.
Limodorum Boehm. (orchid) Thought to derive from a transcription error. Originally named Haimodorum (from haemos, blood) for its red color, somebody forgot the bar in the Greek letter Α, leaving Λ, lambda.
Lycosa tarentula (European wolf spider) Tarantism was a form of hysteria that appeared in Italy in the 15th-17th centuries and took the form of frenzied dancing. In folk belief, the bite of a spider could only be cured by such dancing. The name derives from the Italian province Taranto, as does the tarantella, a folk dance, and the tarantula, the common name given to the European wolf spider and later to the distantly related large, hairy spiders of the family Theraphosidae.
Lymantria dispar Leopold Trouvelto, looking for a better silkworm (Bombyx mori), looked for a close relative and imported Bombyx dispar into the United States. But it turned out that the moths were not very closely related; B. dispar is classified as Lymantria dispar today. "Lymantria" means "destroyer." Trouvelto's moths, commonly known as gypsy moths, escaped and have been causing untold damage to Eastern forests ever since.
Malania anjouanae Smith, 1953. The second specimen of coelacanth was caught 20 December 1952 off the Comoros Islands. As this specimen had only one dorsal fin, J.L.B. Smith, the describer of the first coelacanth in 1938 (Latimeria), placed it in a new genus Malania. This was in honor of Dr. Daniel Francois Malan, the South African Prime Minister, who sent Smith (accompanied by the S.A. air force) in a military Dakota plane to the Comoros (then a French colony) to retrieve the precious fish. South Africa received fantastic publicity worldwide and great prestige in the scientific world. The French government was outraged and declared an international embargo on the coelacanth. The coelacanth was thought at the time to be an ancestor of tetrapods. This specimen was found by Black African fisherman Ahmed Hussein. Ironically, it was named for a man who was an ardent Creationist and the father of the South African white supremacist policy of apartheid. Dr. Malans' reaction upon seeing his namesake, the most spectacular biological find of the 20th century, was, "Why it's ugly! Is this where we come from?" Malania has since been synonomized with Latimeria; the single dorsal fin has been determined to be the result of an injury that the fish sustained while young.
Mammuthus Brookes, 1828 (mammoth) According to a folk etymology (the word's true origins are obscure), "Mammoth" comes, via Russian, from the Estonian maa (earth) and mutt (mole). There is a widespread belief, principally among the Siberians and Inuit, that the woolly mammoth fossils (including some preserved mostly intact in permafrost) were the remains of gigantic burrowing animals which died upon exposure to sun- or moonlight. This also explained why no one ever saw one alive. Remarkably, this myth is still extant today. Some people immediately destroy the invaluable remains upon discovery, as they are thought to bring bad luck.
misspellings. A few notable instances where scientific names have been misspelled: In the movie "Jurassic Park", in the scene with cryogenically preserved embryos, Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus are misspelled as Tyranosaurus and Stegasaurus. A 1994 set of Tanzanian stamps labels pictures of prehistoric creature Diatruma, Tyranosaurus, Uintaterius and Stiracosaurus; the correct spellings are Diatryma, Tyrannosaurus, Uintatherium, and Styracosaurus. (They spelled Archaeopteryx and Brontosaurus correctly.)
Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis King, 1864) With the rediscovery of classical literature in the 16th century, many Germans translated their names into Latin or Greek. One of these was an intellectual named Neumann, who translated his name to Greek as Neander. His grandson, Joachim Neander, found religion and a talent for hymn writing. A lovely limestone valley east of Düsseldorf, where he worked as a rector, provided inspiration. When he died in 1680, his fame was great enough that the locals gave his name to that gorge, calling it "Neander valley", or "Neanderthal" in German. ("Thal" is a cognate of the English "dale".) In the 19th century, excavators began mining the commercially valuable limestone. In August 1856, a local landowner found some bones among detritus left by miners who had dug out an old cave. He thought they were bones of a bear, but the teacher he gave them to recognized them as human but not modern human. The new species was named after the valley where they were found, and so a man extinct for 40,000 years came to be called "new man valley."
Necrosuchus Simpson, 1937 (Paleocene caiman) The name, which means "dead crocodile", was inspired by a local lady who, visiting the fossil's excavation, asked, "Is it dead?"
Neoceratodus forsteri Krefft, 1870 (Queensland lungfish) The "Burnett Salmon" was well-known as a food fish in the 1800's. Its importance to science was only recognised when the then Australian Museum Director Gerard Krefft saw a specimen being prepared for a friend's dinner. Krefft noticed the strange internal organs including the presence of a single lung. This suggested that the lungfish could be the 'missing link' between fishes and amphibians. (Indeed, Krefft considered it an amphibian in its original description [Proceedings of the Scientific Meetings of the Biological Society of London 1870: 221].) Krefft formally named the species after his friend, William Forster, whose dinner it was originally intended for.
Noronhomys vespuccii Carleton & Olson, 1999 (fossil rat). In 1503 the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas are named, explored the island of Fernando de Noronha, off the coast of Brazil. In his Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente in quattro suoi viaggi, Vespucci mentions some "very big rats" as living there. Later explorers found no native mammals on the island, and as Vespucci was the first European to reach Fernando de Noronha, they could not have been European rats. In 1973, Carleton and Olson found fossils of a large previously undescribed rodent. They named the species after Vespucci because his Lettera was the only document "suggesting the existence of an indigenous rodent on the island." Vespucci's rat would have been the only native land mammal of the archipelago. Ironically, three exotic European rodents, the roof rat, the house mouse, and the rock cavy, currently thrive on Fernando de Noronha. [Carleton and Olson, 1999. Amerigo Vespucci and the rat of Fernando de Noronha: a new genus and species of Rodentia (Muridae : Sigmodontinae) from a volcanic island off Brazil's continental shelf. American Museum Novitates n 3256: 1-59.]
Papaipema pterisii Bird, 1907 (moth) The moth lives on bracken fern, in the genus Pteris at the time, so people assumed Bird named the moth after the fern. A personal letter he wrote later, though, revealed that it was named after Pterisius, his pet cat.
Papillio ecclipsis Linnaeus, 1763 (butterfly) Just before his death in 1702, collector William Charlton delivered a curious butterfly to entomologist James Petiver in London. The latter wrote, "It exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R. Rhamni [now Gonepteryx rhamni]), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings." Linnaeus examined it, named it, and included it in his Systema Naturae from the 12th edition (1767) onwards. Not until 1793 did Danish entomologist Fabricius recognize that the dark patches had been painted on. The curator of the British Museum reportedly "stamped the specimen to pieces" when he learned of the hoax, but two replicas have been created since.
Phoenicophorium borsigianum Koch 1855 (thief palm). The original plant was stolen from London's Kew Gardens (hence the common name) and turned up in the private palm-house of amateur horticulturist August Borsig of Berlin. (He owned an ironworks factory and used the heat produced to keep his glasshouses warm.) David L. Jones, in Palms throughout the World (1995) confuses the story by calling Borsig by the name "Lantanier Feuille Borsig"; Lantanier Feuille is actually one of the palm's common names!
Phragmipedium kovachii Atwood, Dalstrom, & Fernandez, 2002 (orchid) Named after James Michael Kovach, who brought the orchid to scientists to identify. But Kovach allegedly imported it from Peru in violation of the Endangered Species Act. In 2004 he was sentenced to two years probation and a $1000 fine. Taxonomists hope to change the orchid's name.
Pithecanthropus Perhaps the only name given to an animal before it was discovered. In the nineteenth century, it was believed that an upright stance evolved in humans before a large brain. With no physical evidence, German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel reconstructed an upright, speechless, small-brained 'missing-link' and dubbed it Pithecanthropus alalus. When Eugene Du bois discovered Java Man in the 1890's, he adopted Haeckel's generic name but he gave it the new specific designation Pithecanthropus erectus. P. erectus is now included under our own genus as Homo erectus.
Plethodon welleri Walker, 1931 (Weller's salamander) In 1930 Worth Hamilton Weller discovered the salamander which would be named after him, on Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. On a collecting trip to collect more specimens, just one week after he graduated with honors from high school, he left the others to collect on his own, and he never returned. His body was found four days later at the base of a cliff; with it was a collecting bag with specimens of the new species.
Rosa 'Whitfield' (rose cultivar) Comedy actress June Whitfield commented, "There is a rose named after me. The catalogue describes it as 'superb for bedding, best up against a wall."
Scops (hamerkop or owl) Paul Möhring proposed this name for the hamerkop (an unusual African bird) in 1758. Mathurin Jacques Brisson named the hamerkop Scopus in 1760. Various other authors, believing Scops to have priority, replaced Scopus with Scops. Pennant, in 1769, believed the name Scops, which in ancient Greek means a small owl, was already taken, so he named the screech owls Otus. Savigny moved this to Scops in 1809 (I don't know why). However, Möhring's initial name came before the official start date of Linnean nomenclature in zoology, December 31, 1758 (the end of the year in which the 10th edition of Systema Naturae was published), so his use of Scops was invalid, and subsequent renamings to Scops are invalid because the names being replaced were valid in the first place. So the name Scops is not used as a genus name at all now. There are, however, Megascops (American screech owl) and Otus scops (Eurasian scops owl).
Sequoia (D.Don) Endl. (coast redwood) Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher created the genus Sequoia in 1847, but he did not explain how the name was derived. In 1868 in The Yosemite Book, Josiah Whitney stated that the name honors Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian who invented a written language for his tribe. That story was not universally accepted (e.g., George Gordon, in 1862, stated that the name "is probably derived from 'sequence' ..."), but it became popular, repeated by many authorities, including the National Park Service and, until 2019, this website. However, the evidence is quite weak that Endlicher was aware of Sequoyah, much less that he chose to honor someone not involved in botany, and if he had, changing the spelling to "sequoia" makes little sense. More likely, Endlicher took the Latin word sequor, "I follow", dropped the suffix "-r", and added the "-ia" suffix used in naming plants. The sequence referred to is Endlicher's arrangement of five related genera according to the number of seeds per cone scale. However, The coincidental homophony of "Sequoyah" and "sequoia", combined with the long published tradition linking them, will no doubt keep the mythic etymology alive long into the future. [See Lowe 2018 and Lowe 2012 in References.]
Sturnella neglecta (Western meadowlark) The specific epithet reflects the fact that the Lewis and Clark expedition overlooked this bird, confusing it with the Eastern meadowlark.
Tillandsia L. (bromeliad) Elias Tilliander was a student of Linnaeus who was once so "harassed by Neptune" on a trip across the Gulf of Bothnia that he returned home by land (a journey of 2000 miles instead of 200) and changed his name to Tillandz, "by land." The plant cannot tolerate a damp climate.
venus flytrap sea anemone (Actinoscyphia aurelia) A sea animal whose common name comes from two different terrertrial plants.
Zyzyxia (H. Robinson) Strother, 1991 (shrub) In the later stages of revising North American Ecliptinae (a subtribe of the sunflowers, Heliantheae), John Strother realized that one species placed in the genus Wedelia differed enough to merit considering it a separate genus. By that time, however, the monograph had already been written and was being proofed for publication. The editor agreed to accept the new genus only if came after all the other genera, so as to minimize the number of pages which would need to be altered. The genera were ordered alphabetically, so Strother created a name which would come after the previously last genus, Zexmenia. (In the monograph itself, Strother says only that the name was arbitrarily formed.)
"I don't understand." It is widely held that French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat mistakenly took the Malagasy exclamation "look there" (or words to that effect) for the common name of the indri (a lemur), but Nick Garbutt in "Mammals of Madagascar" (1999) gives "endrina" as one of the species' native names, and he should probably know. Also it has been related that the aye-aye (another Madagascan lemur) was given its name by Sonnerat after he mistook the surprised cries of the villagers for the animal's name, but this is not generally accepted. In a similar vein, the word kangaroo is ubiquitously stated as meaning "I don't understand" (in reply to Captain Cook's "what do you call that?" query about the creature) or as a garbled repitition of the first part of the question ("can you tell me...?"), but in 1901 a Dr. W.E. Roth claimed that the native name around Cookstown, Queensland, was ganguru. With all three of these its probably a case of believe what you want to believe!

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