Scientific Names

(This column was first published in the August 31, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    In 1737 two books by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swede who had just completed his medical doctorate in Holland, were published. They would form the basis for modern taxonomy: Systema Naturae for animals and Genera Plantorum for plants. In them Linnaeus not only established the kingdom, class, order, family, genus, species subdivisions of living things but he also standardized the means of referring to an individual species.

    Before Linnaeus, it took a paragraph to describe a species. For example, our lawn-infesting common plantain had been called Plantago media incana virginiana ferrata foliis annua. Today botanists know it as Plantago major Linnaeus, the first name indicating the genus, the second the species and the third the person who first described it. As given here, the Latin binomial is usually in italics, the author in standard Roman; often the author is omitted and the name reduced to the binomial.

    Most of us know a few scientific names -- Homo sapiens for us and Tyrannosaurus rex for that ferocious dinosaur -- but we leave the formal classification of the huge number of life forms to professional systematists. Their task is frightening: already, for example, entomologists have named over 290,000 beetles. The rest of us use common names like honey bee (the scientist's Apis mellifera), house wren (Troglodytes aedon), red fox (Vulpes fulva) and common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

    The taxonomist's task is important. It is difficult to imagine modern biology without Linnaeus's tools. How, for example, could Darwin have written The Origin of Species without a means of referring to them? And so there are groups -- the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature for animals and a similar organization for plants -- that oversee the application of the accepted rules for establishing names and assigning priority. An example of the rules: You cannot have two genuses in the same kingdom with the same name. (That rule is not compromised when a bird and marijuana are both named Cannabis.)

    Many of us think of a taxonomist as a person who sits hunched over a microscope in the back room of a museum. That's often reasonably accurate but it does not mean that these people are humorless. Among the millions of names accepted, they have sneaked through a number that I find delightful. (Those cited here derive from collections by May Berenbaum, Mark Isaak, Arnold Menke and Doug Yanega.*)

    One entomologist unobtrusively assigned a lengthy series of genus names: among them Ochisme, Polychisme and Dolichisme. It took eight years for his peers to read those names aloud and scold him for frivolity. But it was soon found that his were among hundreds more less than serious scientific names.

    There are citations to people: the owl louse Strigiphilus garylarsoni, the spider Draculoides bramstokeri, the clothes moth genus that entomologist Clark named Petula to produce Petula Clark. More disguised is the midge Dicrotendipes thanatogratus -- thanatogratus is Latin for Grateful Dead. One of the rules states that names should not give "offense on any grounds." Surely it was broken when Henry Townes was honored with the wasp genus Townesilitus and, even worse, Harrison Dyar's name was given to the moth genus Dyaria.

    But my favorites are the puns: the beetles Agra vation and Agra phobia, the spider Apopyllus now, the wasps Heerz lukenatcha, Heerz tooya and Verae peculya. There are also the horseflies Tabanus nippontucki and Tabanus rhizonshine. the snails Ba humbugi and Abra cadabra and the water beetle Ytu brutus. But best of class has to be the bird named by Linnaeus himself Upupa epops.

    Then there is the fly genus named by McAlpine This. He posted an illustration of one on his office door with the note: "Look at This."

    Perhaps the most succinct comment on all this is the wasp named in 1988 by Menke: Aha ha.

* An excellent place to continue exploring these names (and there are many more -- including some of questionable taste that I feel are inappropriate to this site but that I still appreciate) -- is Mark Isaak's Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature website. You should also visit those of Doug Yanega and Arnold Menke. Yanega's home page in particular is one of the finest general entomological sites on the web and Menke is the author of many humorous names in addition to the one I cited in the last paragraph.

    I was first introduced to this humorous aspect of science by May Berenbaum's column entitled "Buzzwords. Apis, Apis, Bobapis..." in American Entomology 39 (1993): 4-5. In addition to writing her regular column of entomological humor in this journal, Professor Berenbaum has given us three outstanding insect books, each of which I highly recommend to anyone with the slightest interest in what most of us call bugs: Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1989), Ninety-nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1993) and her more serious Bugs in the System: Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs (Reading, Massachusetts: Helix Books of Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995).