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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 Crabs

Crabs are crustaceans, marine animals which have a thick exoskeleton made of a chemical called chitin (which is chemically derived from glucose). Crabs belong to the class Malacostraca, which means “soft shelled animal” and to the order Decapoda, which mostly includes marine crustaceans (like lobster, shrimp and prawn) that scavenge for food, as opposed to hunting them. This makes crabs soft-shelled scavengers.

Here are five fun facts about them: 

  1. There are two types of crabs in the world – true crabs and false crabs – classified so because of their differing physiology. True crabs have the traditional body structure of a crab – a short and shallow abdomen curled underneath the shell and 4 pairs of legs excluding the pincers. False crabs on the other hand, look a little like crabs, but not completely. They have longer abdomens and less than 4 pairs of legs. True crabs include spider crab, blue crab and ghost crab. False crabs include king crab, hermit crab and porcelain crab. There are a total of 5000 crabs in the world – 4500 true crabs and 500 false crabs. 
  2. The largest crab in the world is the Japanese Spider Crab, which measures 13 feet or almost 4 meters from one end of the body to another. In comparison are the Coral Gall crab, Pea crab, Marsh Fiddler crab and Flattop crab – all of which measure in at a teeny-tiny half an inch at adulthood. If you kept 4.5 standard sized mail boxes one-on-top-of-the-other on one side and a small pea on the other side…well, that’s how the size difference would look between these crabs.  
  3. A small species of crab called Lybia or boxer crab, carry stinging anemones in their pincers anywhere they go. Why?  Lybia are very small in size and they don’t have venom to protect themselves from predators. They use the anemones in a mutually-beneficial partnership where the anemone acts as their defensive, venom-filled gloves. If an animal were to attack the Lybia, the anemone would sting the predator, protecting the crab. In return, the crab takes the anemone to different water bodies, allowing it to feed-off various sources and gaining valuable nutrients not found in its native environment. 
  4. If a crab loses its limbs in a fight, it can grow them back in a matter of months. This is a feature that is also found in starfish and lizards. 
  5. Crabs walk sideways because their legs are positioned to the sides of their body and their joints bend outwards and sideways. The reason for this type of evolution traces back to the crabs’ feeding behaviour. As sand-digging scavengers, crabs never needed to move forwards or move fast. This meant they didn’t need forward bending legs (which are one of the reasons animals can walk or run fast) and could make-do with sideways legs and sideways walking. However, not all crabs walk sideways. Frog crabs and spider crabs belong to the handful of crab species that walk forwards. 

 

 

Bonus

There is a type of parasitic barnacle called the Sacculina, which injects itself into the crab’s body, takes control of the crab’s will and makes it do its bidding. Crabs infected by Sacculina can’t control their own body mechanisms and are forced to become walking, breathing incubators of Sacculina eggs. Read this highly-informative article to learn all about the relationship between the Sacculina and its crab host. 

Here’s what a crab infected by Sacculina look like: 

 

 

Video: Coconut tree crabs are the only type of crabs that can climb trees. Watch this monster of a crab climb a tree, bend coke bottle caps and more. 

 

 

Crab 1
A Lybia with anemone in its pincers (image source)

 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image – The Sally Lightfoot crab from the Galapagos Islands. Sacculina – Mental Floss & Wikipedia.

 

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5 Fun Facts About Puppies

  1. What do French bulldogs, Scottish terriers, Clumber spaniels, German wirehaired pointers, Mastiffs and Pekingese have in common? 80% of their species are born via C-section!
  2. Puppies are born blind and deaf at birth and only get their eyesight and hearing around the 7 week mark. They get their sense of smell at 3 weeks.
  3. Puppy dog face is a real phenomenon. Research shows puppies deliberately make puppy eyes and cutesy expressions when they’re being watched by owners. This is a tactic to get attention, hugs and treats.
  4. There are instances of identical twin pups, although they’re very rare. In 2016, an Irish wolfhound in South Africa delivered twin pups who shared the same placenta.
  5. Puppies learn important lessons from other dogs and humans before 7 weeks of age. They must be introduced to humans and other animals by this age or they’ll never get over their fear of other creatures and become anti-social.

Bonus

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is training a Weimaraner pup named Riley to find and hunt pests that may damage irreplaceable artwork.

Here’s a cute video on puppy behaviour:

 

Pup 1

 

Pup 2

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About The Cheetah

  1. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs never roar. They communicate with each other in a series of low chirps and purrs.
  2. There are 36 different species of cheetahs in the world and they can be classified into 5 main categories.
  3. Cheetahs are super-fast and can reach 112 kms/hour in just 3 seconds. Top speeds have been recorded at 120 kms/hour in 3 seconds!
  4. A cheetah’s body is designed to run. The thick rudder-like tail, muscular legs, non-retractable claws, flexible spine and wide chest make it the ultimate lean, mean running machine.
  5. There are only 7100 cheetahs left in the wild. The cheetah is on the Endangered Species List and is considered extremely vulnerable to extinction.

cheetah 3

 

cheetah 2

 

Bonus:

Ancient Sumerians, Egypt’s King Tut and the Mughal emperor Akbar trained thousands of cheetahs as guards and hunters for their royal houses.

(But this didn’t mean they could keep up with the Cheetah during chases and hunts. Take a look at this video which pits two of the fastest creatures on the planet in a race against each other, to know what we mean)

Usain Bolt vs the Cheetah

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Gorillas

  1. They are 98% human! 98% of the Gorilla’s genes are the same as the genes found in humans.
  2. They live only in Africa and no where else in the world.
  3. They make up to 25 different sounds, which is the highest level of vocalization by any great ape after humans. One gorilla named Koko even knew sign language and could make 1000 different signs!
  4. Want to identify a gorilla? Take its nose print. They’re unique (just like human fingerprints).
  5. Homosexuality exists in gorilla families and often females pair together and engage in sexual activity.

Bonus:

When we refer to  “Silverbacks”, we mean “male gorillas who’s over the age of 12” and who are often troop leaders. “Blackbacks” are “males under the age of 11”.

Gorilla 3

 

 

Gorilla 2

 

Video: 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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The Fragile Mental Health of Baby Orangutans

If you thought baby humans were tiny and vulnerable, think again. Baby orangs take first place as one of the most fragile and breakable newborns on the planet.

A baby orangutan needs round-the-clock care up until at least 1 year of age. Just like human babies, they are absolutely helpless and powerless and need their mothers (or carers in captivity) to feed them, bathe them and give them lots of hugs. In the wild, babies stay with their mother for 8-9 years, learning how to be an orang.

But these days, due to increasing commercial activity in Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are being ripped apart from their homes; many apart from their families. Deforestation, coupled with human-orang conflicts which at times leads to mum’s death, can be quite traumatic for baby orangutans.

Often, workers and resident villagers keep orphaned baby orangs illegally as pets. They even sell them on the black market to make a quick buck. This can be especially devastating for baby orangs. Fed the wrong food and kept in unhygienic and harmful conditions, these babies find themselves spiralling down towards abysmal health.

It has been found that baby orangs that experience trauma at a young age often develop PTSD and may go into depression or have anxiety attacks as adults. In extreme cases, this manifests itself as self-harm. It has been noticed how traumatized orangs bite or scratch themselves, pull out their fur and hurl themselves against the wall when unable to overcome the frustration and anxiety they have building within them.

This is where orangutan care centres are especially important. These centres help vets, animal experts and volunteers care for baby orangs and rehabilitate them back into the wild. Take a look at this video below of baby Joss, who was rescued from a house that kept her as a pet where she was ill-treated the entire time.

Many orangutans may even find it very difficult to forge meaningful relationships with other orangs and their human caregivers.

A case in point is Pony, a 17 year  old female orangutan who was rescued from a brothel, where she was sold as a sex slave when she was a baby. Pony was trained to perform unnatural acts with humans and this resulted in her developing serious PTSD and an intense aversion to humans; something which is slowing down her treatment.

Unwilling to interact with humans, Pony is isolating herself from other orangs and her caregivers. Not taught how to forage when young and having been alienated from her natural psychological development, she has made no progress in her healing and the prospect of her release into the wild looks bleaker by the day. Although rescued at age 7, Pony was too old to provide the care her younger cousins (like Joss in the video) were given. Now caregivers use a combination of medication and routine activities to keep her calm and help her regain her trust in humans. To know more about her, follow this link*.

Awareness about these endangered creatures and how they are being abused can help us find ways to save them and protect them. We may not be able to do much for Pony, but we may certainly be able to save others from this terrible fate if we try. Share this post and spread the word about the harrowing journey these little ones face.

-NISHA PRAKASH

P.S: This article may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised. 

Featured image: Orangutan babies

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Pig Anorexia: A Little-known Disease That’s Decimating Porcine Populations Globally

Anorexia nervosa is a complicated disorder and genes aren’t everything. The genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger.”

-Dr. Janet Treasure

 

When Dr. Janet Treasure, senior lecturer at the London Institute of Psychiatry conducted her research into the origins of Anorexia nervosa in humans, she found herself following a path not many knew about; but which could explain how Anorexia functions in human beings.

This path less travelled by, was the study of a disease that only few knew existed and which hardly any understood – Pig Anorexia.

 

Piglet suckling
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The day the pigs came calling

It was in 1962 at a farm in Ontario, Canada that the resident pig keeper noticed something amiss with the new litter of piglets. The tiny creatures had been recently weaned from their mother and were being fed by hand by the farm boys.

While things seemed fine at first, the pig keeper noticed the piglets had stopped eating soon after, often starving themselves for days until they were just skin and bones. With this starvation came the vomitting, the weakness and the weight loss.

The hunger, combined with the deteriorating condition of the body, soon grew too much for the tiny piglets to cope with and the entire farrow lost its life.

This was the very first case of ‘pig anorexia’ as it soon came to be called and it is a disease that has affected pigs the world over.

 

Virus
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The HEV

The Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV) is a RNA virus that affects porcine, aka pigs. As an RNA virus, it affects the pigs’ RNA, infecting the animal at the cellular level.

In every living creature, the DNA is the genetic blueprint of the body and it dictates the physiological and psychological make-up of the creature. The RNA is an acid present in the cells, which carries messages from the DNA and stimulates the production of proteins. These proteins are used by the cells to develop and control the functioning of the various organs inside the animal’s body.

Multiple RNA strands work within the cells of an animal’s body throughout its life. Ultimately, the RNA are responsible for the health of the proteins, the cells and the animal itself.

Now imagine if the HEV were to infect the RNA of the piglets. Each and every time an infected RNA would stimulate the production of proteins in the body, the proteins and by extension the cells, would be infected too.

Slowly over time, the HEV starts infecting the piglets from the cellular level by making their cells and organs diseased.

How does HEV spread?

HEV is just like any other virus and it spreads from contact with body liquids. These liquid spread between snout-to-snout contact and can also spread to pigs through indirect contact with boots, jackets, farm equipment etc. if pig saliva or mucus is splattered on them.

It’s been observed that most porcine populations are exposed to these viruses everyday. But only 1% – 4% of the population ever experience an active attack. Piglets are the most vulnerable to the virus, given their lack of immunity and strength.

Infected piglets will often have microscopic lesions inside their snout, on their tonsils and on the walls of their stomach. When the virus spreads, it moves to the lungs, small intestine and finally the brain through the sensory nerves. It is when the virus reaches the brain that piglets exhibit full-fledged anorexia-like symptoms.

The HEV has been observed re-writing the signals sent to the brain, changing the behaviour of the piglets. The affected piglets display low hunger levels at first and soon start skipping meals. During later stages of the disease, they may vomit extensively and may start dehydrating as a result. The muscles start to wear-out and soon, the piglet is just skin and bones. Death is an inevitable result of the disease.

The HEV-induced infection is a porcine-only infection and does not spread to humans.

 

Piglet 2
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Why is it called pig anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in humans, where the sufferer stops eating or refuses to eat and starts exhibiting a variety of symptoms including:

  • Sudden loss of weight
  • Listlessness
  • Depression
  • Constant vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Extreme weakness and lethargy
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Low tolerance to heat or cold

Pigs infected by the HEV  display symptoms  so close to Anorexia nervosa, that the disease has been named Pig Anorexia.

It can get extremely challenging to diagnose the presence of HEV in pigs. For one, symptoms resemble other diseases like Encephalitis, Vomiting & Wasting Disease or the Classical Swine Fever (or Hog Cholera). The only way now to identify if a porcine herd is a victim of the HEV, is to understand their origins and their environment.

Of birth and breeding

Pig pens are extremely fertile incubation areas for the Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV).  Once the virus takes root, it cannot be eliminated. The reason for this is the lack of a cure. To this day, there is no clinical cure available to help affected piglets.

But, there is something pig breeders can do to reduce herd vulnerability.

Piglets get high immunity from the colostral antibodies found in the mother’s milk. Putting piglets onto the teat at the earliest can reduce chances of an infection by half. Second, keeping the pen clean and free of fecal matter can reduce chances of infection further.

But this still won’t be enough. It’s been observed that susceptibility to the HEV is also affected by genetics. Pigs birthed naturally, without human intervention have the highest chance of survival as they have the most natural genetic structure which is designed to combat fatal illnesses.

However, with humans preferring leaner bacon cuts over thicker ones, pig farmers are deliberately isolating and promoting those genes which give rise to thinner piglets. This type of genetic manipulation, makes the piglets weaker and more susceptible to infections, including the HEV.

Dr. Janet Treasure said, anorexia is as much about genes as it is about the environment. When combined with the weak genes, the poor rearing environment and pathetic post-birth care practices can double the chances of piglets developing anorexia-like symptoms post-weaning.

Fallen pig
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Pig anorexia – shattering the body and the mind

Physically, the impact of HEV-induced pig anorexia is nightmarish. Thousands of pigs die each year because of the lack of veterinary care. Exposure to infected piglets often puts other healthy animals too at risk and increases the headcount.

However, it isn’t the physiological impact alone that needs to be considered. Pigs are extremely emotional and cognitive creatures. They are inquisitive, temperamental and borderline-compassionate.

A 2013 researchby Reimert, Bolhuis, Kemp, & Rodenburg showed how untrained pigs when introduced into a new pen of trained pigs, adopted the behaviours and mannerisms of their trained counterparts, after sustained exposure to them. These behaviours and mannerisms included everything from the way the tails were held to the vocalizations made to the choice of food the pigs were making. This could be an attempt at social acceptance by the pigs or a mimicry of a positive stimulus-response behaviour.

Now let’s apply the same logic here. Imagine if new pigs are introduced to an infected herd which displays signs of starvation, depression and social isolation. The new pigs too are more likely to mimic this refusal of food and they may socially isolate themselves, following the example of the herd.

This psychological impact that the HEV has on healthy pigs, can lead to true pig anorexia, with pigs refusing to eat out of fear, anxiety or depression.

 

Pig person
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The human connect

The idea that pig anorexia could bring about a breakthrough in the study of anorexia in humans was unthought of. But during her study, Dr. Treasure realized how similar pigs were to humans in terms of psychology and social behaviour.

Her study into pig anorexia helped her understand a key component about Anorexia nervosa – while genes do play a vital role in indicating susceptibility to the disorder, it is the environmental factors that finally trigger the condition. Essentially, people may be pre-disposed to anorexia through genetics, but this pre-disposition is unlikely to have a major negative impact so long as the person’s upbringing is filled with love and support.

Just like fecal matter in pig pens, constant negative feedback from family can make people more likely to suffer from anorexia. Remove this environmental contamination and you reduce the subject’s vulnerability to the disorder. This insight is now helping medical professionals find lasting  treatments for anorexia in humans.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Note:

∗ 2013 Research – Please check Pg.115 

P.S: Featured image