Sunday, November 25, 2007

Name That Critter

When intrepid scientists discover a new species, how the heck do they name it? Everything's gotta have a name. After all, science can't describe a species and the implications of its existence by always referring to it as "that onion fly that Dr. Pocketprotector found in Walla Walla" or "that little brown bug".

Most species you'll hear about have a common name (such as the Great White Shark), but because common names differ by region or language, or multiple critters can be called by the same name, all known and identified species have a scientific name which belongs to no other species (such as Carcharodon carcharias). As with nearly everything in science, scientific names have a particular structure to them. Using what is called binomial nomenclature and latinized spelling and (usually) Greek origin, the name has two parts: the first is called the "genus" (which is capitalized), and the second is called the "specific name" or "specific epithet", and is uncapitalized. Both are italicized. The science of identifying and naming life is called Taxonomy.

The genus is usually reserved for known groupings of creatures, but sometimes something is found that is novel enough for a new genus, too. With the specific name, though, anything goes. Scientists usually name the little bugger after some descriptor. For the Great White Shark, the scientific name is derived from the Greek words for "sharp (or jagged) tooth", but names have been made based on words from local languages, people names, or even puns.

For instance, there are at least three species named after Gary Larson, cartoonist for the Far Side, including a beetle, a butterfly, and (my favorite) an owl louse (Strigiphilus garylarsoni). Another is named after an alcohol (the blue agave plant, named Agave tequilana, is what tequila is made from). The chigger, Trombicula fujigmo, is named after the WWII slang for "fuck you, Jack, I got my orders". If you've ever been "bugged" by this irritating pest, you'll know the name fits. HERE is a neat page of other funny or original scientific names. The taxonomist who makes the discovery of the species gets the right to choose the name, but in modern times does not name it after himself. It is accepted practice to name them after someone else. I have personally known taxonomists who named new species of diatoms after each other, for instance. "Hey, Roger, if you name Species X after me, I'll name Species Y after you."

A new trend, though, is auctioning off the right to name a new species. In this day of ever-reduced funding for academics, universities are getting creative for fundraising. Just the other day, a new species of butterfly was named for the winning bid of $40,000:

HERE and HERE are the announcements from when the contest started.

The Florida Museum of History discovered a rather large and ornate butterfly (see picture) mislabeled in a collection of other Mexican butterflies. After determining that it was previously unidentified, they announced the contest. On November 22, the winner was announced. The winner, from which the butterfly was named, was the late Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Malvern, Ohio, on behalf of her grandchildren. The common name will be the Minerva owl butterfly. The scientific name will be Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae. Doesn't exactly roll of the tongue, in my opinion, but naming a butterfly after her is a fitting tribute to someone who "wrote poetry, played piano, and sang." Since most butterflies of this size and appearance have likely already been named, and this is the first new species in this particular butterfly family to be named in a century, this is an honor not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Proceeds from the auction will go to research on Mexican butterflies.

But this isn't the first time a little beasty's official name has gone on the auction block. A Bolivian monkey was named for $650,000 in 2005 (by the World Conservation Society), after The Golden, an online casino company that won the rights. HERE is a link to the Golden Palace monkey's homepage. I urge you to visit. It's a real "hoot"! And 10 previously unknown fish were named for a total of $2 million just this September, including a shark for $500,000 (article HERE).

What is science coming to? The stuck-up, overeducated scientist in me is appalled, but the snarky lab rat in me is smirking. Before long, academic institutions all over the nation may be opening up Departments of Taxonomy as more of a source of income than for the sake of scientific curiosity.

I wonder if there are any unknown rodents out there that are yet to be identified. Do you think they would name one after me? The common name could be, of course, the Angry Lab Rat, and the scientific name could be Rattus iratuslabus. Kinda rolls off the tongue, if I may say so.

Image taken from HERE.


Annaphis said...

Yes, "Rattus iratuslabus" would look good on your masthead.

I like these:

Boselaphus tragocamelus - ox-deer goat-camel

Brachyanax thelestrephones Evenhuis - little chief nipple twister

Eucritta melanolimnetes - creature from the black lagoon

Lycoperdon - wolf-fart

Pulchrapollia - pretty polly

Vampyroteuthis infernalis - vampire squid from Hell

Who said scientists don't have a sense of humour?

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