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What’s In A Name: The Colourful (& Sometimes Hurtful) Profession of Naming New Species

Elephas maximus borneensis, Funambulus palmarum, Ajaja ajaja, Oryza rufipogon…you may have come across these or something similar in your biology textbook or an article about wildlife. They are scientific names of animals & plants – Borneo elephant, Indian palm squirrel, Spoonbills and Wild rice, in that order.

At first read, we may not really decipher which species the name refers to. But when we do, we are pleasantly surprised.

One of the most exciting activities in the scientific community, is taxonomy – the science of grouping a newly discovered species. A part of this job involves naming the species.

While enjoyable, the process of naming a new species is also a very complicated task; which involves a lot of research, word play and sarcasm. If you’ve ever wanted to know how plants & animals get their scientific names, you’re at the right place.

 

Rules 2
Source: Pixabay

 

The rules of naming

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is the governing body which has complete control over all things taxonomy. It is the Code which spells out how an animal can be named and what rules must be followed while naming.

According to the Code, there are 3 cardinal rules that all taxonomists need to follow when naming an animal:

  • Don’t use a used name – The name must be completely unique.
  • Don’t be insulting – The name must not be rude to anyone.
  • Don’t name the species after yourself – The final name cannot include the name of the taxonomist.

Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately it isn’t.

There are many cases in the past when scientists named an animal to either gain recognition or to take a dig at a competitor.

There was Dr. May Berenbaum, the VP of Entomological Society of America, who named a species of urea-eating cockroach after herself – Xestoblatta berenbaumae. Of course, she did say that fame wasn’t her focus when she did this. Dr. Berenbaum was already a highly-reputed scientist in the community and she only wanted to showcase her passion for creepy crawlies by naming one after herself.

 

Cockroach xestoblatta-berenbaumae-male-female
Xestoblatta berenbaumae (Source)

 

Then there was famed 1700s botanist, the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. He is renowned today, not just for his contribution to taxonomy, but also for being unbelievably petty and mean towards people he didn’t like. At the height of his career, he used fellow botanist and friend Johann Georg Siegesbeck’s name as inspiration to name a foul-smelling genus of weed – Sigesbeckia orientalis – after Siegesbeck publicly criticised Linnaeus’ method of species classification. This, many believe, was meant to be a dig at Siegesbeck’s  jealousy at Linnaeus’ success.  

 

Anderson (Mrs), active 1858; Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Later Carl von Linne
Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy (Source)

 

St Paul Wort
Sigesbeckia orientalis aka St. Paul’s Wort (Source)

 

And who can forget Daniel Rolander, Linnaeus’ most-hated protégé?  After Rolander refused to share his field study results and samples from his trip to Suriname with Linnaeus, the latter promptly went ahead and got him banned from leading scientific and academic institutions of the time. To add salt to injury, Linnaeus also named a type of dung beetle – Aphanus rolandri – after Rolander. Ouch. 

Loosely translated to English, Aphanus rolandri means “inconspicuous Rolander”. Now that’s what I call a double whammy.

 

Beetle aphanus_rolandri
Aphanus rolandri (Source)

 

Here’s one more – Famed palaeontologist O.A. Peterson named a species of prehistoric pig as Dinohyus hollandi, after Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History W.J. Holland, for the latter’s annoying habit of hogging the limelight. Holland was known in scientific circles for taking credit for every research paper published by his students, irrespective of whether he contributed to it or not.

 

 

Okay back to the rules of taxonomy

Barring these and a few other instances of inspired, but hurtful name-calling, taxonomy has for the most period, been a civilised affair.

When naming an animal or a plant, taxonomists are told to consider the specialty of the species as inspiration. So, when scientists found a new genus of tiny sea snails, they named them Ittibittium; given how they were much smaller in size compared to another genus of sea snails – Bittium.

 

Snails Ittibitum
Genus Ittibittium (Source)

 

The second way to name a new species – find another creature that looks exactly like it and name the new species after that. Enter Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly which is renowned for possessing a giant, golden bottom. Who else in the animal kingdom had such a big, tanned, booty? Why, Beyoncé of course.

 

Fly Scaptia-beyonceae
Scaptia beyonceae & Beyoncé (Source)

 

TV shows and story book characters have inspired species names too. A newly discovered species of jellyfish was named Bazinga reiki after The Big Bang Theory’s protagonist Sheldon Cooper’s famous catchphrase “Bazinga”. The bacteria genus Midichloria was named after a fictional alien species called “midichlorians” described in the cult classic Star Wars.  Then there’s the fossil of a large turtle, discovered in 1992 – Ninjemys oweni, named after the hit show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

 

 

So, to encapsulate

Scientific names must be unique, kind, not self-glorifying and clever. They must take inspiration from the species itself or another, just like it.

Can only scientists name a new species?

Although scientists who discover the species usually get the honour of naming them, some scientists allow members of the public to send their suggestions.

In 2000, Dr Nerida Wilson discovered a species of nudibranch in the Indian ocean. She didn’t have a name for the animal. So, she decided to let the people decide. She invited names from the public and the submissions were reviewed by a panel of expert taxonomists. Finally, the entry by Patrick from New South Wales was chosen and the nudibranch was named – Moridilla fifo.

 

Nudibranch fifo
Moridilla fifo (Source)

 

Oh yes, here’s something else…

The names don’t need to be in Latin.

Although Latin was the language of taxonomy in the 1700s, today, there’s no strict rule requiring taxonomists to name species in Latin or Greek. You can provide a name in any language of your choice and taxonomists will tweak the spelling to resemble Latin or Greek, without actually changing or translating the name itself.

Want to name a species yourself?

Go on and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Who knows, the next big discovery could be named by you.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

PS: Featured image: Hierarchy in taxonomy Dinohyus hollandi – Fossil; Representative imageBazinga reikiMidichloriaNinjemys oweni 
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Do Other Animals Sweat and Do They Stink?

Humans sweat in order to regulate body temperature.

When our bodies get too hot, they release water, minerals and salt in order to cool themselves down. Without sweat, our bodies would overheat, our organs would start to malfunction and soon we would have a heatstroke; which could be fatal.

But what about other animals? Do they sweat too?

Yes, they do. So, this is one question you don’t have to sweat over.

  • Dogs and cats sweat through their paws/pads. You can see faint wet footprints on really hot days.
  • Horses sweat too. Their sweat contains a detergent-like compound known as “latherin”, which helps clean their coats and keep them cool. This compound is the reason why you see a foam-like layer on horses’ coats on really hot days or when they’re overworked.
  • Monkeys, chimps, gorillas and orangutans all sweat too. But we can’t see them sweat like we do, since their sweat glands are located below their fur.
  • Hippos secrete a really scary-looking liquid, called “blood sweat”. This liquid contains a reddish-orange pigment (which gives it its blood-red colour) and it offers anti-bacterial and cleansing properties, which keep the hippo healthy. In addition to this, it functions like sweat and regulates the hippo’s body temperature.

You know who doesn’t sweat? Pigs.

Pigs regulate their body temperatures by wallowing in the mud. So, they don’t sweat like we do. The expression “sweating like a pig” actually refers to pig iron, which is a type of iron metal. During the smelting process, pig iron tends to heat-up to a very high temperature. When it cools down, it reaches dew point, resulting in the formation of large dew droplets on the iron. 

 

piglet-3386356_1280
Sweating like a pig? (source)

 

What about the stench?

Okay, lets set the record straight.

Human sweat actually doesn’t have an odour of its own. The bacteria located on the skin, especially those around the sweat glands, start to break down the sweat compounds when sweat is produced. The resultant changes in the chemical make-up of the sweat leads to the release of an odour, which stinks.

There’s something else too.

Humans have two types of sweat glands –  Eccrine sweat glands (which are found all over the body) and Apocrine sweat glands (which are found under the armpit & around the anus). When the Apocrine sweat glands mature and start to function after a child hits puberty, it releases a thick & oily sweat, different from the one released by the Eccrine sweat glands. It is this thick and oily sweat that produces a terrible stink when broken-down by bacteria.

So, what about animals? Do they stink too?

Pigs don’t sweat the way we do and so they don’t produce any stench whatsoever. The same goes for any other animal that doesn’t sweat the way humans do.

What about the ones that sweat like us? Well, the bodies of other “sweating” animals do produce smells; just not the ones we’re talking about. 

Other types of body odour

The smell produced by animal body secretions shouldn’t be confused with sweat-induced smell. Some secretions, like musk, civet & ambergris (which are derived from musk deer, civet cats and sperm whales respectively) , aren’t sweat. In other cases, animal body odour is actually pheromones, which are released by animals to inform potential mates that the animal is willing to receive sexual partners.

Then there are gorillas, which produce a smell, unique to each individual troop member. But these odours act as social markers, providing other troop members and enemy gorillas information about the animal. These smells have been shown to affect how gorillas behave with one another.

But coming back to sweat and its stink; there is still no strong evidence to show that animals which do sweat like humans, stink like humans too. So far humans are the only ones who produce copious amounts of sweat and who stink up the joint when they sweat.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image
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Humans aren’t the Only Ones Who Have Oral Sex, Other Animals Do It Too

It was a warm summer’s day in 2013 when scientists researching fruit bats in Southern India noticed a unique behaviour in their subjects. The bats – who lived in an old fig tree in the village of Malumichampatti in Tamil Nadu – were performing oral sex on their mates!

This was a startling revelation to the scientists. Till date, this behaviour hadn’t been noticed in Indian fruit bats. Up until then, it was only observed in Chinese fruit bats, but no other bat species. This discovery was new and exciting.

Only a human experience?

Humans have for long indulged in oral sex. Myths and ancient books from around the world mention oral sex aka. fellatio (oral sex on males) and cunnilingus (oral sex on females), in various capacities.

There was the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who blew life into her husband Osiris’s body by sucking on his penis, after he was murdered by his brother Set. In the ancient Indian book of Kamasutra, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the use of aupariṣṭhaka (the art of oral sex) in love making. In the ancient city of Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed baths predating 79 AD, with wall paintings of couples engaging in oral sex. 

Popeii fresco
The ancient fresco on the walls of Pompeii’s public bath. (Source)

Based on these evidences, scientists assumed that oral sex was the domain of human pleasure. That is until they found other animals engaging in it too.

Non-penetrative sex for non-humans

Animals have evolved to have sex. This includes both penetrative and non-penetrative sex.

Pet dogs and cats are excellent examples of animals which engage in non-penetrative sexual behaviours – chair mounting, dry humping and self-stimulation (auto-fellatio). In farms, the same behaviour can be observed in horses and birds The same is true of wild animals like turtles, walruses and monkeys (amongst others), who indulge in self-love.

With masturbation on the table, oral sex doesn’t seem too-far-off a possibility.

Animals like fruit flies, squirrels, bonobos, wolves, brown bears, sheep, Dunnock birds and Darwin’s bark spiders have been observed engaging in oral sex. The reason for this isn’t clear yet, although there are a few theories:

Theory #1: Oral sex can help prolong sexual activity

With the Indian fruit bats, scientists noticed that oral sex served to increase the time bats spent performing penetrative sex. The male bats would begin mating, with about 50 seconds of oral sex, followed by 10-20 seconds of penetrative sex. They would then revert to about 90 seconds of oral sex and finally back to penetrative sex of much longer duration.

This has led to conjectures regarding the connection between oral sex and the length of penetrative sex.

Dunnock Prunella modularis perched on bramble with dark background Potton Bedfordshire. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
A Dunnock bird. (Source)

Theory #2: Oral sex can remove bad bacteria from the vagina

The second theory proposed by researchers talks of the role of oral sex in animal health.

Some scientists believe that enzymes in the animal’s saliva can remove (and sometimes kill) bad bacteria, which live on/inside the mate’s sexual organs. This was one of the theories suggested regarding the Indian fruit bats from Tamil Nadu.

Another related theory suggests that cunnilingus, may be used by males to wipe-off sperms by competitors; thereby ensuring that only their sperms successfully take root. This is the theory used to explain the behaviour of Dunnock birds; where the male pecks at the female’s cloaca until older sperm masses drop out of her body. He mates with her only after this pre-copulatory display. This he does, it is believed, to prevent his mate from mothering another male’s brood.

Theory #3: Oral sex can improve the quality and mobility of the sperm

Another theory surrounding animal oral sex is that of sperm quality. It is assumed that fellatio may remove old, ineffective sperm and allow the male to use fresh, healthy sperm when mating.

Oral sex has also been presumed to improve the mobility of sperm, allowing the sperm to travel farther through the female’s reproductive tract and ensuring a successful pregnancy.

On this note, scientists have suggested that oral sex may work the other way too – make the female more receptive to mate, by stimulating the production of natural lubrication in the reproductive tract. In fact, this theory has been suggested regarding human females too.

Theory #4: Oral sex doesn’t serve any purpose, except pleasure

Finally, the last theory considers pleasure as the only purpose for the presence of oral sex in the sexual repertoire of non-human animals.

There are many animals like bonobos and macaques, who have been observed experiencing true pleasure during sex. They engage in play during the sexual act. For these few animals, mating doesn’t serve a reproductive purpose alone. They have sex because they like it.

Some scientists believe that in these species, oral sex may only be a tool to increase pleasure; and nothing more. A lot like in humans.

Bonobos
A Bonobo troop. (Source)

Oral sex and homosexuality in the animal kingdom

When talking about the sexual behaviours of animals, the question does arise – is oral sex in non-human animals restricted to heterosexual mates or does it include homosexual mates too (given how oral sex is common to both heterosexual and homosexual couples in humans)?

The answer – its species-dependent.

Primates like bonobos and macaques have been observed engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual behaviours, which includes oral sex. Other animals like dolphins, who are reputed for their varied sexual antics, have been observed engaging in homosexual behaviour, but not oral sex in particular. 

This makes it very hard to define whether there is any connection between oral sex and sexuality the animal kingdom or not; or if like humans, there is absolutely no connection. 

Understanding animal sexuality

With greater awareness, scientists are slowly peeling-back the layers surrounding animal sexuality. We are learning more today about sex, reproduction and pleasure, than we ever did before.

Understanding sexuality in the animal kingdom is also helping us understand human sexuality better. It is allowing scientists to understand human physiology and human evolution better too.

Studies like these are doing one other thing – redefining what it means to be human and what it means to be animal. As the lines dividing humans from animals blurs, we may need to rethink much about ourselves and the world.  

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Greater Indian fruit bat.

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Do Cockroaches Add Any Value To Our Lives?

As it turns out, they do.

Periplaneta, the genus to which cockroaches belong to, might be considered vermin by most of us; but as it turns out, they’re actually quite useful little critters. Here’s how:

  • They eat everything

Okay, this may not sound too great at first, but read along and you’ll see why this is a good thing.

Cockroaches eat absolutely everything under the sun, from potatoes to animal carcases to books. This makes them excellent recyclers.

Just imagine. What would you do with thousands of metric tonnes of dead matter, used books and rotten fruits? You can’t responsibly dispose-off them all, can you? This is where cockroaches come in. They eat through absolutely everything and they get rid of your waste for you.

There are over 55 species of cockroaches in the world, of which 12 reside close to humans. The rest live outdoors. Together, they recycle millions of metric tonnes of waste each year.

  • They sustain life

Okay, this is going a little far, don’t you think? Nope, because it’s true.

Cockroach faeces is one of the most-powerful natural fertilizers on the planet. Cockroach waste produces huge amounts of nitrogen (courtesy, the decaying matter they feed on), which is then used by plants during their lifecycle.

Without nitrogen, plants won’t be able to survive. Kill enough cockroaches and over time you lose entire forests. And as you know, without forests there won’t be any animals. This includes humans.

So, if you encounter a cockroach, stop and consider this. The cockroach you’re about to stamp, is probably saving your life. Consider giving him a warning and let him off the hook. Poor guy.  

Lesson to be learnt

 

Now, I’ve had my fair share of cockroach kills in my life. And like most people, I never realized how important these creatures were to the ecosystem. But this insight helped me re-think how I view cockroaches. It also made me wonder about other pests like rats. Do they add any value to the Earth too?

As it turns out, they do.

Rats are very intelligent creatures. They’re very adaptable and are quick learners. That’s why they’re the primary subjects of all scientific experiments. But rats and mice do offer value beyond this.

We may hate rats because they’re “icky”, but they function as prized food for animals like cats, snakes, eagles, falcons, owls and weasels, amongst others; most of whom are beloved the world over. Imagine what would happen to them if rats were to go extinct.

Humans may be able to survive the loss of their lab companion. But do you think other animals could survive the loss of prey?

What can we take away from this?

Every animal on the planet fulfills a purpose. Learning about these animals can help us understand what this purpose is. More importantly, this knowledge can prevent our committing harsh actions against them, which may ultimately have a long-standing negative impact on the planet.

But in saying this, its also important to note that animals like cockroaches and rats are considered pests for a reason. They spread germs  and disease and they wreak havoc on farm produce. Killing them can prevent these pests from overrunning the planet and keep the Earth safe.

But for this to be executed correctly, it must be done in a controlled manner and a need-only basis.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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Geckos are Weird, but Awesome: Here are 3 Reasons Why

Most of us don’t like geckos. They’re creepy little buggers who skulk in bathroom corners and whose bulging eyes look like they’re staring into your very soul. A little unnerving, to be honest.

But did you know that geckos are some of the most ingenious creatures in the world? In fact, they’re responsible for being the muse behind some of the world’s most brilliant technologies.

Scientists today have begun full-fledged studies into these slippery critters, in the hope of finding more technological inspiration from them. Here are three amazing and weird facts about them:

  • They take a bath in dewdrops

Dewdrops are formed when the surface of a plant or insect’s body is hydrophobic .i.e. repels water. As it turns out, geckos have a similar, if not the same, hydrophobic skin. Gecko skin contains tiny hair-like spines which trap air from the atmosphere. When this layer of air cools down, it becomes water.

As time passes and more air collects on the hair particles, the water droplets grow in size. When they’re large enough, they are able to be manipulated by external forces like wind and gravity. A slight gust of wind or the gecko moving can make the dewdrop slide right-off its body. When the dewdrops fall-off the gecko, they clean away dirt particles on the body. This technique is extremely useful for geckos, given how many species live in dry and arid wastelands where little water is available. This type of water retention can help them stay clean and healthy, without having to look for water resources.

Here’s another fun fact. Geckos are the first vertebrates to be found possessing hydrophobic skin. Their skin has now inspired scientists to develop super-hydrophobic clothing which can self-clean by collecting water vapour from the air and which wouldn’t need washing, ever!

 

Gecko 4
Source: National Geographic

 

  • Their tails spin a tale of their own when chopped-off

Geckos, just like other lizards, have the ability to voluntarily cut-off and drop their tails when faced with danger. This defensive technique gives them the opportunity to escape. Think about it. You’re about to catch a sweet-looking gecko, when BAM!, its tail falls off. Shocking isn’t it? You probably wouldn’t want to touch it after this.

But the interesting part isn’t this ingenious tail-dropping strategy. Studies show that gecko tails can move independently in and of themselves for up to 30 minutes after they fall off. Researchers from the University of California and the University of Calgary collaborated on a project in 2009, to understand how these tail movements are controlled after the tail falls off.

The scientists pinched the base of a gecko’s tail and made it fall off. They then attached four electrodes to both sides of the tail – two on each side. They found that once the tails fell off, they began to swing from side to side. This was an automatic response. But the moment the tail was lightly-shocked through the electrodes, it started jumping and somersaulting in the air erratically.

As it turns out, gecko tails have brains of their own. The moment a predator so much as grazes against it, the tail starts jumping and flipping. A few seconds later, it goes back to its serene swinging movement. If the predator touches the tail again, it explodes into a series of complex back spins, flips and jumps.

Scientists believe this technique is an additional measure to alarm predators and keep them occupied while the gecko escapes.

 

Gecko 5
Source: National Geographic

 

  • They can right themselves mid-air just like cats

While felines have the credit for being the most aerially acrobatic of all vertebrates, it’s the geckos who have truly opened science’s eyes to amazing possibilities. Until someone observed the unique way in which geckos flipped mid-air to stop their drops, no one knew these little lizards were capable of mid-air antics.

Experiments have shown that when geckos walk on non-slippery surfaces, their tails are held high up, away from the floor and pointing towards the sky. If the ground/wall is slippery, the gecko lowers the tail to the floor and leans its body against it for support – kind of like on a fifth leg.

When geckos slip and fall, they rotate their tails at a right angle to their body. Then they twist their tails again in the same direction, to make their bodies rotate too. They basically use the momentum generated by their tails to turn right-side up, to land on their feet.

This technique ensures that geckos always land on their stomach, irrespective of the direction their bodies were in when their fall began. This entire process of turning right-side-up takes only about 100 milliseconds! Now that’s what I call fast.

For comparison, cats don’t use their tails to land on their feet when they fall. They have a very flexible backbone and free-floating collarbones which give them the flexibility and speed to twist their bodies up to 180 degrees in seconds.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

P.S: Featured image: Gecko

 

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5 Fun Facts About Puma

  1. Pumas are known by 80 different names around the world. Some of the ones you may have heard of are – Cougar, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount & Shadow Cat.
  2. Puma cubs are born with spots on their fur, which they lose as they begin to age.
  3. Big cats roar, while small cats snarl. Unlike lions & tigers, puma can’t roar, but they can snarl. This makes them small cats, despite being the fourth heaviest cat species in the world.
  4. There are only 50,000 breeding Pumas in the wild, making them “Near Threatened” according to the IUCN Endangered Species list.
  5. Puma cubs start hunting small prey at 6 months of age. That’s the fastest of all the cats.

 

Bonus

Pumas are excellent jumpers. They can jump as high as 5.4 meters upwards onto a tree. That’s almost twice as high as the World Record high jump of 2.45 meters by Cuban athlete Javier Sotomayor.

 

2759172 - america cougar mountain lion resting on rock
A puma resting 

 

puma 6
A puma hunting a bear cub. The mother bear runs to save its cub. 

 

Puma 1
A puma cub

 

Puma 3
A puma running

 

Puma 5
A mother-cub pair

 

-NISHA PRAKASH