August 1, 2020
What’s in a name (pt III)
To finish off my series on names, I wanted to point out that part of the reason scientists often use scientific names rather than common names is that there are simply too many species to give each of them a scientific name and one or more common names. Especially among the species that are too small for the average person to notice and not of tremendous economic importance, scientific names are often all that we have to work with. For example, I have personally worked with Opius dissitus, Lysiphlebus testaceipes, Binodoxys communis, Aphidius ervi, Aphidius colemani, and Praon pequodorum, which are parasitoids of vegetable leafminer, soybean aphid, soybean aphid, pea aphid, green peach aphid, and pea aphid, respectively. None of the parasitoids have common names, so out of necessity, I became very comfortable with the scientific names for these species. Cryptic, little-known oddballs are not the only species with well-known scientific names and no common names, however. Popular culture, and especially the Jurassic Park franchise, help to ensure that most people gain at least passing familiarity with Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor, Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and Triceratops sometime during their childhood. Many gardeners are familiar with Iris, Clematis, Echinacea, Ranunculus, Viburnum, Phlox, Chrysanthemum, and a variety of other plants whose genus or species name are used as the common name. If gardeners and kindergarteners can use scientific names in common usage, is there really any reason that their use is not more prevalent?
On a lighter note, scientific names often give us little windows into the minds of those who composed them. Discovering, describing, and naming a new species is a big accomplishment, and many scientists celebrate that accomplishment by having some fun with the name. For example, a stink bug that had slipped under the radar of other entomologists in an entomology collection was named Thestral incognitus after the thestrals in the “Harry Potter” stories that are visible to some, but not all, people. Naming a species after someone is often considered an honor, though sometimes the names are derived from similarities rather than direct honors. For example, Neopalpa donaldtrumpi is a moth with a plume of orange scales on its head that resembles Trump’s signature hairdo. Scaptia beyonceae is a horse fly named after Beyonce Knowles for its distinctive gold behind. Aleiodes shakirae is a parasitoid of caterpillars that causes the host to bend and twist its abdomen in a manner reminiscent of its namesake’s famous belly-dancing. Fictional characters are also fair game, with the 0.001 inch wasp Tinkerbella nana named for the fairy in “Peter Pan” and the big, hairy moth Wockia chewbacca named for the big, hairy wookiee in the Star Wars franchise.
Some scientific names also include puns or plays on words. For example, Mini mum, Mini scule, and Mini ature are three species of frogs that are among the world’s smallest frog species. Gelae baen, Gelae belae, Gelae donut, Gelae fish, and Gelae rol are fungus beetles with no particular connection to jelly besides their name (“Gelae” is pronounced the same as “jelly”). Bazinga is a jellyfish that took its name from the Sheldon Cooper’s catchphrase in “The Big Bang Theory”. Hebejeebie is a genus of plants named for causing anxiety to plant taxonomists working on making sense of its classification. Ittibittium are mollusks that are smaller than those in the genus Bittium. Abra cadabra is a bivalve that, unfortunately, has been reclassified in the genus Theora, which really takes the fun out of its name.
There are many more entertaining scientific names, and these repositories by Doug Yanega and Mark Isaac list many (though certainly not all) of the creative names generated by scientists. If you want to get more comfortable with using scientific names, starting with the fun ones may be the way to go. Learning some Latin and Greek roots can also help.