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Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature
Mark Isaak       specimen@curioustaxonomy.net
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Misc.: Interesting Stories

Astraptes audax, A. augeas, 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; 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 four 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, principly 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.
Neduba extincta Rentz, 1977 (Antioch Dunes shieldback katydid) In the 1960's, Dave Rentz was revising the Dectininae crickets when he came across a specimen of an apparently new species of the Neduba genus that had lain unidentified in a museums collections since the late 1930's. Its large size, differently shaped pronotum, and other characteristics were unique. Despite several large scale field excursions to California's Antioch Dunes (which have been largely blown and hauled away) it has never again been recorded. Rentz pronounced it gone and named it 'extincta'. (photo) [Rentz, D.C.F., 1977. A new and apparently extinct katydid from Antioch sand dunes, Entomological News 88:241-245.]
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.]
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."
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.
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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