The Game Of The Name

Having Fun With Scientific Names

Posted on: February 4th, 2021

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #41

Celebrities, scientists, musicians, artists, and even politicians are often honored by biologists with species names. Many of these names will be valid for hundreds of years.

What do Beyonce, former President Barack Obama, the Grateful Dead, and Leonardo DaVinci have in common? They all have had species named after them. Taxonomists, scientists that describe and name newly discovered species, are not just secretive creatures living in dark laboratories, feebly illuminated by the light of their microscopes. These scientists spend their lives describing in great detail the morphological characteristics of species, measuring and drawing, and more recently, using molecular tools such as DNA barcoding and other chemical elements. According to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, a complex set of rules that guide the naming of species, taxonomists are tasked with putting scientific names to species (often renaming species),. If this sounds boring and even stodgy, fear not. Taxonomists can also have a lot of fun when it comes to creating scientific names, as you will see below,

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and taxonomist. He introduced the current system of binomial nomenclature. Artwork from ‘The Gallery of Portraits with Memoirs’, London, 1835.

Scientific names are the common language of biodiversity. They are usually composed of two words (binomial name), the Genus name (first word) and the Species name (the genus plus a second word, which together form the species name). Scientific names are created in many ways, often using Greek or Latin words that describe specific characteristics of the creature. The currently used scientific naming system was proposed by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, who introduced the concept in his book Species Plantarum.

Some questions arise from all of this. For example, why do we need to have scientific names? Why are they so complicated and often unpronounceable? If you think that today’s scientific names are overly involved, you should see what they used to be before Linnaeus decided to put some order to the field. Early naturalists used Greek and Latin words to name, as well as describe, species. As more species were discovered, the process got complicated, giving rise to species names composed of many descriptive words, making them rather useless. The binomial system proposed by Linnaeus fixed this and provided a standard that is still used today.

Animal Ambassador Poppy came to Lindsay in 2018 with a tail injury. Since then, Poppy has entertained and educated many children and adults.

There was also another issue with the names of species. The world has over 7,000 different languages, and animals, plants, and other creatures often have names in these languages that differ from place to place. Although species often have several “common names,” each distinct species can have only one scientific name, which helps scientists that speak different languages know they are talking about the same species. Let’s use as an example one of Lindsay’s animal ambassadors, our dear Poppy, the opossum. In the US, the most used names are Virginia Opossum or North American Opossum. Its scientific name is Didelphis virginiana. The genus name, Didelphis, comes from the Ancient Greek words “di,” meaning two, and “delphus,” meaning womb. The “two wombs” refers to the pouch that opossums and other marsupials have that allow their offspring to complete development. Opossums are born tiny and quite undeveloped from the “first womb” or uterus and achieve their growth in the “second womb” or pouch, technically known as marsupium. The species epithet, virginiana, comes from the name of the state of Virginia and has been used to name species not only from that state but from surrounding areas and, in the case of the opossum, the entire eastern region.

Opossums are widely distributed in the Americas. In the US, they are native to the Eastern states and were introduced to California and the West, from where they continue to expand. Their common names are amazingly diverse. For example, in Venezuela, they are called “rabipelado” (naked tail); in Costa Rica, “zorro pelón” (bald fox), and in Panama, “zarigüella.” Other names are mucura, mbicuré, and muca (Brazil, Guyana, and Perú), raposa (Ecuador), grote builderat (Suriname), zorro de mochila (literally, backpack fox, used in Colombia). And the list goes on, chucha común, zorra, yalu, awari, mtacuazín, ux, and on and on. Now, you start to see the need for a name that everyone would understand, regardless of language or country.

So, back to our celebrities. President Obama has no less than nine different species named after him! These include a trapdoor spider (Aptostichus barackobamai), a little freshwater fish called the spangled darter (Etheostoma Obama), an extinct lizard (Obamadon gracillis), a hairworm (Paragordius obamai), a blood parasite of turtles (Baracktrema obamai), a bird, the western striolated puffbird (Nystalus obamai) and more (see the full list here).

Here are some other species named after celebrities (famous and infamous):

–      Leonardo davincii, a moth belonging to the family Crambidae or “grass moths” described by Polish entomologist Stanisław Błeszyński in 1965. It is found in Sudan.

Scaptia beyonceae, a horse fly species (family Tabanidae) from Australia named after singer and actress Beyoncé (get the full hilarious story here).

Strigiphilus garylarsoni was named to honor cartoonist Gary Larson, a favorite among biologists.

–      Campsicnemius charliechaplini (dolichopodid fly).

–      Strigiphilus garylarsoni Clayton (owl louse).

–      Anacroneuria carole and A. taylori (stoneflies), named after Carole King and James Taylor, respectively.

–      Gaga germanotta (fern), named after Lady Gaga “because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression.” Lady Gaga’s given name is Stefani Germanotta. 

–      Over 30 different species named after David Attenborough.

–      Arthurdactylus conandoylensis (Brazilian pterosaur), named after Arthur Conan Doyle

Even our most recent former president was honored with a species name.

–     And we recently learned of Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, a small moth belonging to Gelechiidae or “twirler moths” (they have the habit of running in circles on leaves) native to California and Northern Mexico with a patch of yellow scales on its head that made Vazrick Nazari (the Canadian scientist that described it) think of our most recent past president’s hairstyle.

Finding funny, unusual, and even mean scientific names is sort of a pastime for a few of my entomology colleagues and for me. Here’s a list of some of the most amusing ones we have found.

Longest name: Parastratiosphecomyia sphecomyioides, a species of fly in the soldier fly family Stratiomyidae.

Shortest name: Southeast Asian bat, Ia io.

Funniest names: here, we have so many that it can be overwhelming.

La cucaracha, La paloma (pyralid moths)

In 1977, entomologist Arnold Menke received from a colleague a package in the mail with several wasp specimens, including a note saying “Aha! A new species.” He responded with “Ha! Doubtfully.” It ended up being true and Menke named the new species Aha ha.

Aha ha (sphecid wasp)

Ytu brutus (beetle)

Enema pan (scarab)

Colon rectum (leiodid beetle)

Dicrotendipes thanatogratus (chironomid or non-biting midge named by my friend, Dr. John Epler, for Grateful Dead)

Pison eu (wasp)

The late Dr. Charles Hogue expressed his appreciation for the diverse Latin American culture by naming several species of these little flies belonging to the genus Maruina after expressions used for women.

And then, there is this series of small mosquitoes of the Genus Maruina, meaning “tiny flies” in the native Brazilian Tupi language, belonging to the family Psychodidae, often seen in and around bathroom sinks and shower drains. They were described by my late friend, Dr. Charles Hogue, who had a particular love for Latin America. For the species epithets, he chose words that are used in several countries to describe relationships and endearing expressions for women. These included amada (loved), amadora (loving), campesina (from rural area), cachita (Virgin patron of Cuba), chamaquita (Mexican slang for a small or young girl), chica (slang for a girl or young one), cholita (old derogatory expression for women of mixed race in the South American Andes, but now used to exalt their unique fashion styles), garota and menina (girl, in Portuguese), muchacha (young woman in Spanish), querida (loved one), vidamia (my life) and more.

Three species of the small parasitic wasps were described by Dr. Ian Gauld to acknowledge the help he received from our family during his studies in Costa Rica.

Finally, taxonomists often use this ability to name new species to honor people who have contributed to science, conservation, or recognizing friends, colleagues, or family. The late famous British entomologist, Dr. Ian Gauld, described hundreds of new species of tiny tropical parasitoid wasps of the family Ichneumonidae from Costa Rica. My young kids and I spent several days driving and hiking around the Costa Rican countryside with Ian collecting specimens. Years later, Ian described some of these species in our honor, including Neotheronia rosai (from my last name), Neotheronia charli, and Neotheronia lizzae (for Charlie and Lizzy de la Rosa). John Epler, my entomologist friend mentioned above, named a new chironomid midge species in my honor in 2010, calling it Phytotelmatocladius delarosai. He is currently working on describing a new genus and species of midge that he plans to call Carloscladius claudia, a tongue twister of a name honoring my wife Claudia and me.

This handsome bat has the honor of having the shortest scientific name in the world (so far), Ia io.
I’d love to have a conversation with the author of this name. Colon rectum doesn’t seem to befit such a cute little beetle.

Using Latin or Greek words to describe the shape of other species’ characteristics is another way that taxonomists get creative and fun. For example, the scientific name of the South American Giant Anteater is Myrmecophaga tridactyla, from the Ancient Green “myrmeco-” meaning ant, “phagus-” meaning eat, “tri– “meaning three, and “dactyl-” meaning fingers. So, Myrmecophaga tridactyla is “the anteater with three toes.”

Finding out the origins and meaning of scientific names is a great and entertaining way to learn more about our flora and fauna. For example, look up the scientific names of familiar species in your backyard or area and research their names’ origin and meaning.

You can also play a game with your kids and make up fancy scientific names using the meaning of Greek or Latin words. For example…

Nystalus obamai, one of the nine species (so far) named after former president Barack Obama.
Word Meaning
Myrmeco- Ant
Macro- Large
Dactyl- Finger
Nasu- Nose
Chelys- Turtle
Dendr- Tree
Tri- Three
Phag- To eat of, that eats
Pipien- That sings (like a frog) or screams
Chironom- That moves its small legs
Aur- Good or golden color
Plumos- Like a feather
Delphis- Uterus or place of development

Can you make up some names for new species using these terms? You can find many more illustrated Latin and Greek words to play with here.

Enjoy!

Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director

 

FURTHER READING

  A description of the Binomial Nomenclature history and value.

   Species named after former President Barack Obama

   Comprehensive website of interesting scientific names and their meaning. Some really funny names here.

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