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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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I’m Celebrating My First Anniversary At WordPress & Stories So Wild!

Hey everyone! It gives me great pleasure to announce that today – October 9th 2018 – is My 1 Year Anniversary at WordPress.

It was a year ago that I decided to pick up my laptop and start blogging about a topic that I was most passionate about – wildlife. I thought I’d take this time (and use this post) to talk about my experience so far and the amazing journey I’ve been on during this eventful year. 

I have always loved wildlife. As long as I can remember, I’ve picked up books that dealt with animals, plants, rocks, water bodies…the list is endless. Be it stories by Enid Blyton or memoirs by Jane Goodall, each book held my fascination and still do so today. Although I don’t have an academic background in wildlife and I don’t have much field experience, apart from the ocassional safaris and treks through protected parks, I have always felt the only prerequisite needed to write about wildlife is – passion. And that’s something I have in excess of. 

My journey this year has been amazing and I’ve gone through such a growth curve. I’ve learnt what kind of material ticks in the blogging world, what type of writing format I’m good at, what type of work my readers love to read and most importantly, what type of content gets the word out about the wonderful plants, animals & arthropods that occupy our world. I hope I’ve been able to (and hope to continue to) do my bit to help reduce ignorance and increase empathy towards the wild. 

I have been inspired by so many writers, painters, bloggers, photographers – both on WordPress and those outside it – the list of people whose creative work has inspired my creative juices to flow, is endless. I have gained immense knowledge about the different kinds of science writing in the literary world and I’m now more aware about my responsibilities as a science writer. I am discovering new ways to discharge these responsibilities with care and finesse. 

I have experimented with multiple blog formats over the course of this year and I am now beginning to understand where my future lies in the world of wildlife blogging. For this, I have my readers to thank. Your feedback has helped me find my voice – a voice that works for both you and me – a voice that hopefully works in favour of the wild we are working together to protect, preserve and promote. 

I’d also like to thank my family – my parents & sister – for their constant encouragement, without which I would never have had the courage to channel my passion into words. This blog is a source of comfort and joy to me today. Your critique and directions have helped me hone my writing and they challenge me to take on more challenging topics of discussion each day. 

Finally, I’d like to end by thanking everyone of my readers & followers for being with me on this exciting journey. I hope we can walk arm-in-arm for years to come, learning about the wild we all love so much. 

Have a great evening!

Lots of love, 

Nisha Prakash 

 

 

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5 Fun Facts About Sea Sponge

Sea Sponges are multi-cellular creatures that do not have a brain and organ systems and depend on the constant flow of water through their porous bodies to get the oxygen and food they need to survive. There are over 9000 recorded varieties of sea sponges in the world today and they can be found at various depths right from the seashore to the abyssal zone, which is the deepest part of the ocean. 

Here are 5 fun facts about them: 

  1. Fossil records of sea sponges indicate that sponges first made an appearance on the Earth 650 million years ago. This makes them one of the earliest life forms on the planet.
  2. There are currently 480,931 marine species known and on record and an estimated 2 million that are as yet unrecorded and unknown (i.e. there is not enough evidence – be it visual proof or physical proof – to classify any unknown animal as a distinct species) in all the lakes, seas and oceans of the world. It’s believed that 75% of the world’s entire marine population (480K + 2 Million) accounts for sponges.
  3. Since they don’t have any age-rings (like in trees), it can be hard to accurately estimate the age of a sea sponge. But analysis of growth rates indicates that some sea sponges grow 0.2 mm (0.000656168 feet) per year. Based on this, sponges as small as 1 meter (3.2 feet) wide may be over 4500 years old!
  4. A sea sponge in the Caribbean – Tectitethya crypta – produces two chemical compounds which can treat certain types of cancer and HIV. The chemicals – spongothymidine and spongouridine – have been used to develop the HIV drug Azidothymidine (AZT) which can be used to prevent mother-to-child and needle-to-skin AIDS/HIV transmission. The same chemicals have also helped create medication for leukemia and herpes. 
  5. The biggest debate since the time of Aristotle has been – “Are sea sponges plants or animals?” Although they resemble plants in appearance and remain permanently fixed to the spot they grow on like plants, sea sponges are not plants. Why? 

– Sea sponges can’t produce their own food like plants and rely on stray organic matter to float into their pores via the flowing water.

– Sea sponges have an immune system like other animals which reject dissimilar cells if transplanted into them. Scientists need to use immunosuppressants to successfully transplant dissimilar cells into their bodies. 

– Finally, some sea sponges produce and release sperm to indulge in sexual reproduction. 

These characteristics makes sea sponges inherently animal-like.

 

Bonus

Today, you can find a feminine hygiene product called “Menstrual Sponges” on the market. Basically, these are sea sponges that are used as re-usable tampons. In many parts of the world (especially in developed, first-world countries), sea sponges are a favoured alternative to toxic, non-biodegradable and expensive sanitary pads and tampons. Here is a link to the Top 5 most preferred sea sponge tampons

Would you use them?

 

Tidal zones
Various tidal zones in the ocean – sea sponges are found at each level, right from the seabed to the Abyssal zone.

 

Sea Sponge 2
Sponges grow in large clusters across the ocean bed. (image source)

 

Sea Sponge 3
A female sea sponge that’s spawning .i.e. releasing fertilised eggs into the ocean. Most sponges are hermaphrodites – both male and female – and can produce sperm and eggs simultaneously.  (image source)

 

Sea Sponge 4
Different types of sea sponges in the world. (image source)

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image source
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5 Beautiful Fungi From Around The World

Fungi are a group of organisms in the plant kingdom that include mushrooms, moulds and yeast. While some are plain-Jane in appearance, others look too beautiful to be real. But the fact is, they are real, they are beautiful and some are deadly. 

Here’s our list of 5 beautiful fungi from around the world:

Pixie’s Parasol Fungus

Found in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and New Celadonia, Mycena interrupa, aka, the Pixie’s Parasol grows on moist beech and eucalyptus trees. 

 

Fungi 1
Pixie’s Parasol Fungus

 

Red Coral Fungus

Found under hemlocks, conifers and other deciduous trees in North America and the Himalayan Mountain Range, Red Coral Fungus is one of the few edible fungus in the world. 

 

Fungi red coral
Red Coral Fungus

 

Orange Peel Fungus

Growing in North America, the Orange Peel Fungus gets its name from the cup-like, orange-coloured body it has. Although it is harmless to humans and can be eaten, it is usually avoided since it very closely resembles its highly-toxic cousin, the Otidea onotica.

 

 

Fungi orange peel
Orange Peel Fungus

 

Fungi Otidea onotica
Otidea onotica – poisonous to humans

 

Porcelain Fungus

A common sight in Europe, the Porcelain Fungus grows on rotting tree barks. It releases a very strong and foul smelling fungicide that prevents animals from eating it and that destroys other plants or fungi that grow near it. 

 

Fungi Porcelain fungus
Porcelain Fungus

 

Mycena Chlorophos Fungus 

One of the handful of bio-luminescent fungus in the world, the Mycena chlorophos is found in subtropical Asia, Brazil and Australia. It glows the brightest when it is a day old and starts losing its bio-luminescence as it ages, until its glow becomes absolutely undetectable to the naked eye. 

 

Fungi Mycena Chlorophos
Mycena Chlorophos Fungus

 

 

Although these are amazing, they aren’t the only beautiful and brilliant fungi around the world. Stay tuned to Stories So Wild for more fungi-related posts!

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image: Golden Spindle Fungus 

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5 Fun Facts About Barn Owls

  1. Barn owls screech. In fact, other than the tawny owl that hoots, all owls screech.
  2. Barn owls never make nests. Instead, they lay eggs on their own pellets and droppings.
  3. Barn owls are monogamous pairs who breed only once in their life, laying up to 7 eggs. If food supplies are very high, they may brood again, but with a much smaller nest of 2-3 eggs.
  4. Barn owl chicks are the only birds in the world who sacrifice their share of the food to feed siblings who have less to eat or are ill and need more.
  5. Barn owls have the most sensitive hearing of all animals on the planet and can hear sounds between 0.5 to 10 kHz. They have lopsided ears, with one ear positioned higher than the other. This difference in placement means the birds can listen for the most minute sounds both from the air and the ground simultaneously.

 

Bonus

Barn owls were voted Britain’s favourite farmland birds in 2017. It’s not uncommon to find artificial nest boxes in homes across Britain, that are created specifically to encourage barn owls to nest.

 

Barn Owl India 2
Indian barn owl

 

Barn owl Australia 4
Australian masked barn owl

 

Barn Owl Celadonia 2
New Celadonian barn owl

 

Barn owl 4
A common barn owl

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Fairy Penguins

  1. Also called Little Blue Penguins (due to their blue-coloured feathers), Fairy Penguins are the smallest penguin species in the world, standing at 1 foot in height at adulthood. That’s around the same height as a 2-year old baby.
  2. Fairy Penguins are the only penguins not found in Antarctica. They live in New Zealand, Australia, Chile and South Africa.
  3. Fairy Penguins are monogamous during each breeding season and seldom mate with multiple partners during the same season. But once the chicks leave the nest, they may choose a different partner for the next season.
  4. Although they aren’t on the endangered species list, survival of the Fairy Penguins is solely dependent on humans. If it weren’t for the protected lands set aside for them, native predators would have long made this penguin population extinct.
  5. Fairy Penguins can be quite the gluttons, eating up to 2 kilograms of fish and krill a day. That’s a lot of food for birds their size.

Bonus

Fairy Penguins moult every February to grow thick, new waterproof feathers. Since they won’t have any feathers at this time, they are trapped on land unable to swim and unable to hunt for food for a week. To overcome this, these penguins eat double the usual quantity and put on weight to survive the week of starvation.

Fairy Penguin 2
A newly-hatched fairy penguin chick and an unhatched egg
Fairy Penguin 1
Fairy penguins in the wild

Video:

Newly hatched fairy penguin chick at Cincinnati Zoo

-NISHA PRAKASH