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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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5 Fun Facts About Sunflowers

Sunflowers aka Helianthus  is a genus of plant that comprises of 70 types of flowers. They are native to the Americas, but have been commercially exported to and grown all over the world.

Here are 5 fun facts about sunflowers: 

  1. The largest sunflower in the world is in Netherlands. It is 25 feet long and 5.5 inches wide. That’s almost 6 meters taller than a giraffe.
  2. Sunflower seeds follow a pattern which always follows the Fibonacci sequence
  3.  Young sunflowers exhibit a behaviour called “heliotropism” where they face the East in the morning and turn their heads, following the direction and movement of the Sun throughout the day. By nightfall, these sunflowers will be facing West. At night, they again turn their heads from West to East in preparation of the Sun’s rise. 
  4. U.S. astronaut Don Pettit took sunflower seeds on board the International Space Station in 2012 and grew pretty sunflowers in space. This makes sunflowers a part of the elite list of plants grown in space
  5. Each sunflower is made of two different types of flowers – an external ray floret which make up the long, yellow petals and the internal disc florets where the seeds grow – each of which perform unique jobs for the flower as a whole. The ray florets help in absorbing light from the sun, whereas the disc florets help in reproduction. 

 

Bonus

Sunflowers have been the pivotal focus of the careers of many artists and poets like Vincent Van Gogh, Allen Ginsberg & William Blake. The sunflowers’ behaviour of following the movement of the sun offered a message of “hope, light and rebirth” to these tortured artists, allowing them to express their repressed emotions.

However, sunflowers have also landed these artists in some exciting, but sticky situations. For example, in the year 1890, two of Van Gogh’s most famous painting series – “Sunflowers” – were displayed at an art exhibit in Brussels, Belgium, where they were received with critical acclaim. 

A Belgian artist who had his own sunflower series up in the exhibit called Van Gogh a “charlatan” in a fit of jealousy and demanded his paintings be pulled down. Van Gogh’s friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who was at the exhibit was so offended by the disparaging remark, he challenged the Belgian painter to an old-fashioned duel. The winner would get to have his paintings displayed and the loser would pull his paintings down.

Guess what happened once the date and time of the duel were set? The scared Belgian artist never showed up, begrudgingly agreeing to let Van Gogh’s paintings remain in the exhibit. 

 

Sunflower 6
One of Van Gogh’s famous Sunflower paintings

 

Sunflower 3
A sunflower bud that’s about to bloom

 

Sunflower 4
Sunflowers can range in colour from pale yellow to reddish-brown. The colouring depends on the soil, the fertilizer, the water and the amount of sunlight the plants get.

 

Sunflower 2
A sunflower field – the inspiration to many artists and poets

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Image credits- Pixbay, Van Gogh Museum

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5 Fun Facts About Orchids

  1. There are more than 25,000 documented species of orchids in the world and they’ve been around since before the continental drift 200 million years ago.
  2. The smallest orchid in the world is in Ecuador. It is only 2.1mm long and it requires a microscope to examine. It’s petals are so thin and transparent, scientists believe they resemble the size and texture of human cells.
  3. There is an orchid called the Bee Orchid, whose petals and fragrance resemble a bee. The orchid uses its unique appearance and fragrance to attract male bees, to stimulate pollination.
  4. Orchid seeds are really tiny – smaller than a dust particle. That’s why some orchids take up to 15 years just to germinate. Many of the full-grown potted orchids found in stores are often decades old!
  5. Rare orchids can get really expensive. Some of the most expensive orchid plants are – Rotchschild’s orchid ($5,000 per plant), Fire lilies ($10-$20 per stem), Yellow And Purple Lady Slipper (Critically endangered – Priceless) and Ghost Orchid (Critically endangered – Priceless).

Bonus

That vanilla-flavoured ice cream you love so much? It’s derived from an orchid. The Vanilla planifolia is a type of orchid, whose leaves are used to derive the vanilla flavouring used in food and beverages. Additionally, when someone talks about “vanilla beans”, they’re actually referring to orchid seeds.

Orchid 15
Rothshild’s slipper orchid
Orchid 16
Ghost orchid
orchid 17
Purple lady slipper orchid 
Orchid 1
Rare blue orchids
Orchid 2
Praying Angel orchid
Orchid 5
Bee orchid
Orchid 8
Platystele Jungermannioides – the smallest orchid in the world
Orchid 9
Moth orchid 
Orchid 10
Monkey orchid
Orchid 13
Swaddled baby orchid
Orchid 14
Flying duck orchid

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: Featured image: Dendrobium orchid