Curiosities of biological nomenclature

Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature is a wonderful website you might not have come across. Its creator, Mark Isaak, introduces it as follows:

Scientific names of organisms are not usually known for their entertainment value. They are indispensable for clarity in communication, but most people skip over them with barely a glance. Here I collect those names that are worth a second look.

And what a collection it is. Virtually every page offers an eye-opening, smile-inducing specimen – often several of them – with succinct and edifying commentary. You’ll find funny facts, strange stories, verbal delights and historical oddities. The site is divided into sections such as Etymology, Puns, and Wordplay, and its many sub-pages amount to a feast of fine browsing material, which is regularly updated.

An example of its taxonomic lore: I learned that Piseinotecus divae, a nudibranch,* gained its peculiar name after an incident in which one of its discoverers “stepped on [a] dog on the way to the kitchen in the middle of the night”. Apparently, Piseinotecus means “I stepped on Teco”, Teco being the name of a dog that belonged either to a diva or to Professor Diva Corrêa.

Chimera fans will appreciate Boselaphus tragocamelus (an antelope, pictured below) whose Latin name translates as “ox-deer goat-camel”; Chaetopterus pugaporcinus (a marine worm) is a “Chaetopterid worm that looks like the rump of a pig” (judge for yourself); while Vampyroteuthis infernalis is, more B-movie-ishly, the “Vampire squid from Hell”. Pun names include Apopyllus now (a spider), Daphoenus demilo (an extinct bear dog), Heerz lukenatcha (a braconid), Pieza deresistans (a fly), and Verae peculya (another braconid).

Offensive names are officially prohibited, but insults and imprecations slip through, sometimes cryptically. Other names are inadvertently indecent. There’s the beetle Foadia (its offence is acronymic), Fukuia (a snail), and Silybum (milk thistle). They get much ruder. Under “Valid Words in Other Contexts” we encounter an insect named Alienates, a beetle named Euphoria, a sea urchin named Disaster, a spinosaur named Irritator, a snail named Provocator, and an arachnid named Oops.

Among the Long and Short Names in the Wordplay section, I met Polichinellobizarrocomicburlescomagicaraneus for the first time; unfortunately, its identity remains a mystery. One page is dedicated to Drosophila melanogaster’s noteworthy gene names, which include currant bun, faint sausage, karst, prospero, skittles, snafu and splat. There are anagrams and tautonyms, rhymes and reversals, onomatopoeia and oxymorons (e.g., Anoura caudifera, the tailed tailless bat).

Names of living things are often redundant and are subject to ongoing revision. One reason for their proliferation is that some namers are “splitters” rather than “lumpers”. All the more reason to be grateful for a website that records and aggregates some of the most interesting and entertaining names in biology.

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* Nudibranchs are sea slugs from paradise.

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8 Responses to Curiosities of biological nomenclature

  1. Wonderful stuff Stan. What I like is that many species (and a few genuses are named for eminent people)… Dubya and Cheney were immortalised in2005. Agathidium bushi is a slime mold beetle!

  2. John Cowan says:

    And then there’s the Tokay gecko, whose Linnaean name is Gekko gecko. How stupid is that? Gecko gecko would have been fine, or Gekko gekko if you must, but the same name spelled two different ways? Bah.

  3. Stan says:

    Jams: I remember being amused by that one! The site has, as you’d expect, a long list of organisms named after people. Many writers, musicians and filmmakers have had the honour — as well as spiritual and political leaders, from Dalailama, a Tibetan moth, to Anophthalmus hitleri, a blind beetle which is “found in only five Slovenian caves and is endangered by collectors of Hitler memorabilia”.

    John: Tell that to Brian O’Brien. Gekko still makes me think of Gordon, unfortunately.

  4. John Cowan says:

    Well, “Brian O’Brien” sort of reflects the underlying nominative vs. genitive in Irish, though in English they are obviously pronounced exactly the same. In any case, the given name is always “Brian” and the surname always “O’Brien”, as far as I know (the Aubrey/Maturin author was using a pseudonym), so his parents didn’t have much choice. But whoever named the Tokay gecko (so called after its characteristic call, which some hear as “to-kay!” and others as “fuck-you!”) could have gone either way.

  5. Sam Long says:

    I have a list of some 800 tautonyms (e.g., Gorilla gorilla) and near-tautonyms (e.g. the aforementioned Gekko gecko, which is tokay by me)…including some “fake” ones like “Famishus famishus, the coyote , and “Delicius delicius”, the roadrunner), in Warner Bros’ Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons. Mark Isaac’s website is a very useful and entertaining source for me.

    • Stan says:

      That sounds like a fun list, Sam – feel free to post a link here if you ever put it online. I return to Isaak’s site every once in a while; it’s such an entertaining place to browse.

  6. Brendano says:

    I remember being amused in the Botanical Gardens when my wife read ‘superbum’ aloud as ‘super-bum’.

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