Wilderness Underfoot: The scientific name game

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You might be surprised at the strange, silly and irreverential meanings of scientific names

Try to read this: Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides. It’s a rather long tongue twister of a name given to a small soldier fly. Most people can’t even pronounce the Latin and Greek names that scientists use to classify and describe the Earth’s organisms, let alone understand what they mean. Scientists have long been known for using stuffy, incomprehensible language when discussing their favorite topics. But there have always been those experts who wanted to make science a little clearer for the general public, and also more fun.

Scientific names are essentially made up of the “genus” (a group that includes one or more individual species) and then the “species.” For example, Tyrannosaurus rex is the genus of Tyrannosaurus, and the species of rex. A meaning is buried in there as well: tyranno (tyrant) saur (lizard) and rex (king). The scientist who discovers or first describes an organism gets to make up the name, and he or she has a fair amount of leeway in doing so.

While names are usually descriptive of some important characteristic displayed by an organism, this is not always the case. Some organisms are named for their discoverers, and some are named just for fun. One such case involves a unique creature discovered by Illinois fossil collector Francis Tully. Scientists at Chicago’s Field Museum were baffled by this swimming, wormlike creature, which they informally called Mr. Tully’s monster. The name stuck, and they finally described the creature as Tullimonstrum gregarium.

Paleontologist Robert Bakker has always enjoyed challenging the establishment. Along with other authors, he named a cute, but deadly, little dinosaur after Bambi—Bambiraptor feinbergi. He named another dinosaur Drinker nisti, with the first four letters of the species name referring to National Institute of Standards and Technology (he intends to name another dinosaur after the I.R.S.!). The first name honors Edward Drinker Cope, an early paleontologist. To honor filmmaker David Attenborough, Bakker named a prehistoric sea reptile Attenborosaurus. To honor a bar/cafe owner in Rock River, Wyo., he named a prehistoric turtle D. buzzops.

Other scientists have had their fun with names as well. Actors such as Orson Welles and Harrison Ford and Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Monty Python’s John Cleese have all been honored. And there’s no mistaking the musicians these scientific names refer to: Milesdavis, B. beatlesi, Elvisaurus, A. jaggerius and P. richardsi, C. garciai, P. zappa, Villa manillae and H. stingi.

No fewer than 32 genera or species honor J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,. Some examples are a shark named Gollum, a wasp named Smeagolia, a fossil mammal named Mithrandir, a leafhopper named M. sauroni and a hairy-footed beetle by the name of P. bilbo.

Some names are just fun, such as Kamera lens, Abra cadabra, Reissa roni, Agra phobia, Chaos chaos, Heerz lukenatcha, Heerz tooya, Verae peculya and Gelae donut.

From the Jan. 18-24, 2006, issue

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