02.05.2018 change 02.05.2018

From Attenborough to Batman. Inspirations for the names of new animal species

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

Researchers use various inspirations when naming new animal species. Informative names are the most common - they suggest what the species looks like or where it comes from. But there are also crustaceans named after Freddie Mercury and fish dedicated to Batman.

Scientists discover thousands of new animal species every year. There were about 14,000 such discoveries in 2011 alone.

There is a long way from the discovery to the formal description of a species. "It is necessary to designate a typical specimen for such a species, in other words a holotype, a model individual of the species" - explains Piotr Jóźwiak from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Hydrobiology of the University of Lodz.

The species should also have a diagnosis - a set of features that allow to distinguish it from other species in a given genus. All this is supported by a series of illustrations, photos, as well as a detailed morphological description.

One of the less time-consuming issues, but also important in this taxonomic process, is naming the new species. But forget about colloquial or local names. Why? To explain this, Dr. Jóźwiak gives the example of the cross spider, which is called Gartenkreuzspinne in German. "You can imagine that the name of this species will be different in every language in the world. We are looking for something universal, and in fact the universal scientific name is the Latin name: Araneus diadematus. There are borrowings from Greek in official names, recently also more often from contemporary languages, but they must be Latinised" - he emphasises.

The names of organisms should be as universal and uniform as possible. This condition can be met by using the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which is a set of rules defining the principles of creating a name. The most basic requirement in the species nomenclature, besides language, is using a binominal name (a combination of two names). A correct name is a combination of a generic name and a specific name.

The code specifies many aspects of the nomenclature. "The name must not be too long, it should be easy to remember and say. Another important aspect is that it should not be offensive, so if we decide to dedicate a species to someone, describe it in someone`s honour, it should be a good intention" - says Dr. Jóźwiak.

When naming new species of animals, scientists reach for various inspirations. Informative names are common - they suggest what the species looks like. An example of this is the common black garden ant. It is black, which is literally reflected its Latin name - Lacius niger.

References to the place of occurrence of the species are also common.

Sometimes the name is misleading - this is the case, for example, with the frog Litoria caerulea (caeruleus means blue). Dr Jóźwiak explains that the living amphibians of this species are actually bright green. The discrepancy between the name and appearance comes from the fact that the species was described on the basis of specimens preserved in alcohol, which caused blue discoloration of the green frog.

There are numerous species in the zoological nomenclature that are named after various figures, for example from the world of science. The fossil fish Materpiscis attenboroughi was named after English broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough.

There are also species described in honour of figures from the world of art, such as the crustacean Cirolana mercuryi (named for Freddie Mercury), or the Bobmarleya gadensis that has a crown of tentacles that resemble the dreads of the reggae icon - Bob Marley.

Many species have been named after the heroes of pop culture: the fish Otocinclus batmani owes its name to a pattern on its tail fin that is reminiscent of the bat sign known from the Batman movies and comic books. In turn, the name Agathidium vaderi comes from the resemblance between the shape of this species` head and Darth Vader`s helmet.

Dr Jóźwiak also talks about Polish taxonomic research and Benedykt Dybowski, a well-known naturalist specializing in the fauna of Lake Baikal, especially in the Amphipoda crustacean fauna. He described 116 new species. The most interesting period was the end of his career, when he would construct very long species names. The longest had as many as 52 letters! Later - in accordance with the provisions of the Code concerning the non-use of very long names - they were invalidated later.

Another interesting figure in taxonomy was Wilhelm von Blandowski - a traveller born in Gliwice (in a family with Polish roots), researcher of Australian fauna and curator of the Natural History Museum in Melbourne.

He became famous because of his conflict with the members of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. To insult his opponents, von Blandowski decided to describe new species of fish "in their honour" - says Dr. Piotr Jóźwiak. One of the species, dedicated to pastor Bleasdale, was described as " slippery fish that lives in the mud", another, dedicated to Dr. Eads, as "easily recognized by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine". As a result of the conflict, Blandowski left Australia.

PAP - Science in Poland, Kamil Szubański

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