Tag: names

Names have power

My photographer friend Rob recently introduced me to The Inky Fool, a great blog about the English language. The most recent post, Dinosaurs and Tennyson, reminded me of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s famous poem which coined the phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, and which I had completely forgotten features dinosaurs – newly discovered at the time – as evidence that even species don’t last forever, and that one day, humanity itself may die. It’s beautiful, if melancholy.

The Fool also talks about a few dinosaur names, which is something I talked about during the most recent Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour season. See, when you discover a species, you can call it anything you want – so long as you make it sound Latin. It needn’t be real Latin, you can just stick -i or -us on the end, even if you’re using Greek or French or English words. (This is exactly the same rule used by J K Rowling for making Harry Potter spells.) I thought I’d share a few of my favourite dinosaur names, some of which I’ve talked about on the blog before:

  • Seredipaceratops arthurcclarkei – “Arthur C. Clarke, serendipitous horned face”. Serendipitous because the discoverers only realised it was a ceratopsian dinosaur after seeing a specimen in Canada that resembled their new dinosaur. Arthur C. Clarke because some scientists are massive nerds. Note that like many so-called ceratopsians, it quite possibly didn’t have any horns; the only common facial feature among them is the bone frill at the rear of the skull.
  • Sinosauropteryx prima – “first Chinese reptilian wing”. I like this more because it sounds like something you’d put up your nose to stave off hayfever, but also this is the first dinosaur to have it’s colouration in life identified – and it was a ginger. Yeah!
  • Raptorex kriegsteini – “Kriegstein, king of thieves”. King of thieves? Yes please! Though I’d prefer Autolycus from Hercules to Kevin Costner… I also appreciate the species name, Kriegstein: the father of the person who donated the fossil, and a Holocaust survivor, which is poetic: fossils being the only suriviors of the K-T extinction event, the dinosaur equivalent of the Holocaust.
  • Quetzalcoatlus northropi – “Jack Northrop, Quetzalcoatl”. Yes, it is a supreme act of imagination to name a prehistoric huge flying frightening beast after a mythical huge flying frightening beast, in this case Quetzalcoatl, feathered serpent of the Aztecs, patron of learning and knowledge. And eating innocent window cleaners and sunbathers, if terrible 80’s horror cinema is to be believed. John Knudsen “Jack” Northrop was the founder of the Northrop Corporation, an aircraft manufacturer, who wanted to make large aircraft based on Quetzalcoatlus‘ tailless design. We’ve yet to definitively work out if Quetzalcoatlus could fly or not, though, so maybe planes based on it aren’t the best idea; I get images of Howard Hughes in my mind…
  • Stegosaurus armatus – “armoured roof lizard”. The first discovered species of my favourite dinosaur, and though the meaning of the name is a bit naff, I do love the name itself. Stegosaurus, which a good friend of mine shortened to “steg” (she had to, I talked about them all the time). Instantly recognisable, just like their silhouette.

So those are some of my favourites; what are yours?

What’s in a name?

Australian readers will probably have heard about the travesty that is iSnack 2.0, the name chosen by voters as the name for the new variety of Vegemite (it’s the traditional yeast extract mixed with cream cheese). But names fascinate me all the more when applied to living creatures, and it seems we’re in need of some.

Australia has a dearth of taxonomists – scientists whose job is to classify, catalogue and – in conjunction with the biologists and botanists who discover them – name new species. The problem of not having enough taxonomists for the job is never more present than when we see evidence of the back-log of un-named Australian species, and in the news at the moment are hundreds of underground species from central Australia, about half going unnamed.

News.com.au invited readers to come up with names, and predictably “iBug 2.0” was an early comment. Work colleague Robert came up with the better “iBlindFish”, though it sounds rather violent.

It’s unlikely the public will really be asked to name these creatures, and in any case, those are only common names – important, but less so than the binomial names required by science. But just such a name was offered up to the public by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, when they put the rights to choose the scientific name of a newly discovered species Lebbeus shrimp on eBay back in March. (All proceeds to the conservationists, of course, though how we’re supposed to know what we’re conserving without decent funding for taxonomy I’ve no idea.)

Discovered just off the southern coast of Western Australia by Anna McCallum, a graduate student at my old stomping grounds the University of Melbourne, the shrimp – of the genus Lebbeus – looks pretty impressive with it’s yellow and green carapace dotted with red spots. In addition to the naming rights, the winner of the auction got to take home a framed portrait of the little bugger by “freelance botanical, scientific and natural history artist” Mali Moir. The story was picked up by a stack of marine blogs – everything from conservationists to aquarium enthusiasts – and the comments on Stony Reef’s article indicate the bidding got up to $3,550 before the end.

I say before the end, because even though this happened back in March, I can’t find any indication of who won, or what the shrimp was eventually named. I’ve found quite a few Lebbeus species online, including L. grandimanus, L. groenlandicus, L. balssi, L. elegans and L. polyacanthus (these last two seem to have been discovered in late 2008 in the Sea of Japan), but none of them are our red-spotted yellow and green eBay item. There’s a Lebbeus entry on Wikispecies, but almost none of the species have any details, so it’s not much help.

So what happened? I hope it’s not significant that the auction ended on April 1st… Surely someone out there knows something, but it’s a sad sign of our taxonomic paucity that no central database of Australian species exists. But fear not, lab coat readers! I shall endeavour to follow this up. Emails are even now winging their way toward people who might be in the know, and I’ll post a follow up in the coming weeks.