meyer rochow binomial name cave biology

Something to remember

Some names you won’t forget

All life forms have a scientific name; in fact a double-name consisting of a specific and a generic component. It is by these names that scientists all over the world know precisely which organism is meant. In most cases these names have Latin or Greek roots. The housefly, for example, is Musca domestica, with Musca meaning ‘fly’ and domestica referring to the ‘home’, representing genus and species, respectively. There are other ‘flies’, also belonging to the genus Musca, but being different species they have different specific names like autumnalis or sorbens. Thus the full names of these flies would be Musca autumnalis and Musca sorbens (the generic name starts with a capital letter, the specific name with a small letter, but both are given in italics).

This kind of ‘binomial nomenclature’ (which means the characterization of all organisms by two words) goes back to the Swedish biologist Carl von Linné, who published his first list of names for plants in 1753 and for animals in 1758. Since then well over a million plant and animal species have been named in this binomial way. Although the names of the species and genus often refer to specific features of the organism, it has also been common to bestow an organism with a name that refers to a person, perhaps the discoverer of a plant or an animal.

Thus, it is not surprising that there are hundreds of species designated …darwini or …darwinii (of course in combination with different names for the genus to avoid confusions). But not only the names of famous scientists have become immortalized in this way. The French Antarctic explorer Dumont d’Urville’s beautiful wife Adélie is remembered in the scientific name for the Adélie penguin Pygoscelis adeliae. And when I discovered a new species of deep sea fish I was tempted to name it after my girlfriend of that time (but later was glad I refrained from doing that). Queen Victoria of Great Britain has her name given to innumerous plants and animals and the explorer and botanist Joseph Banks and the fish curator Miss Latimer even got their names turned into the genera Banksia and Latimeria. Emperor Hirohito has a jellyfish named after him: Zanclea hirohitoi.

But the names of modern celebrities (for example, filmstars, and musicians) have also been used to characterize new species. To mention but a few, there is a fly by the name of Campsicnemius charliechaplini and a marine snail by the name of Bufonaria borisbeckeri, which honours the Wimbledon champion Boris Becker; there is a frog by the name of Hyla stingi that hops around the Columbian jungle and is named after the rock music group Sting, and then there is the little dinosaur Masiakasaurus knopfleri named after Mark Knopfler of the band “Dire Straits”.

One of the more bizarre insect names is that of a small Slovenian cave beetle. It goes by the name Anophthalmus hitleri, named after Adolf Hitler. Amongst entomologists the beetle is famous enough for hundreds of amateur speleologists and beetle enthusiasts to regularly visit the cave where the beetle was originally found in 1933 in order to procure specimens. Requests to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to change the name have been in vain: the name stands (and due to over-collecting there are now very few specimens of this insect left). Needless to say, the beetle is protected and highly endangered. But that makes illegal poaching all the more lucrative and thousands of Euros or dollars are nowadays required to buy a single specimen. What a shame the blind beetle cannot be bred in captivity, but its destiny seems having to remain forever hidden away and eking out a meagre existence in its dark and bunker-like underground habitat of the Slovenian mountainside!
meyer rochow binomial name cave biology

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2015.
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