Ba Humbugi! Let's Nameus That Speciesus
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
Published: February 20, 2005 (from New York Times on the Web)
WHAT'S in a name?
If you're a tiny creature native to the Indian subcontinent, exactly
36 vowels and consonants. That's what it takes to spell Prolasioptera
aeschynanthusperottetii, a primitive fly discovered by an Indian
entomologist, M. S. Mani, in 1943.
The hefty name may be just about the only thing unusual about P.
aeschynanthusperottetii, an otherwise forgettable insect. But it is
hardly the most unusual name in the animal kingdom. (It isn't even the
longest: another fly weighs in at 42 letters.)
Scientists may be serious people, engaged in the pursuit of objective
truth. But when it comes to naming species, they often let their hair
So the insect world has Heerz tooya, Apopyllus now and Pieza pi and
Pieza rhea, among thousands of puns and other oddities. (In science,
all creatures are binomial, with a capitalized genus name followed by a
lower-case species name.) The oceans are home to Ittibittium, a genus
of mollusks that are smaller than those named Bittium. There are
species named for body parts and bodily functions, for celebrities,
painters and writers, for cartoon characters and favorite sports. For
those who find it to be all too much, there is even Ba humbugi, a snail
Since the scientist who discovers a species gets the right to name it,
the lay public doesn't often have a chance to join in the fun. But the
Wildlife Conservation Society announced this month that it would
auction off the naming rights to a new species of monkey found in
Bolivia. The money raised by the auction (beginning Thursday at
www.charityfolks.com) will go to wildlife protection in that country.
So, to the victor goes the spelling. And just about any spelling goes.
"We have a code of ethics - no names that could be offensive on any
grounds," said Neal L. Evenhuis, an entomologist at the Bishop Museum
in Honolulu and current president of the International Commission on
Zoological Nomenclature, which oversees the naming process (similar
groups exist for plants and bacteria). Beyond that, and requirements
for Latinizing certain words, the person naming a species has wide
Dr. Evenhuis has taken some of that leeway himself with several of the
more than 500 species of insects he has named. The flies Pieza pi and
Pieza rhea are his creations, as are Pieza deresistans (relying on an
alternative pronunciation of the genus name) and his personal favorite,
"It's not that I'm desperate," Dr. Evenhuis said. "I just have this
streak of levity. Not all names have to necessarily be kind of boring."
Others, however, are desperate. The problem is there are too many
species. Well over one million animal species have been described, and
millions more are awaiting discovery. And there are still many known
species that no one has had the time to name yet. "There are not enough
taxonomists to go around," Dr. Evenhuis said.
While some scientists try to follow the traditional practice of
incorporating an organism's characteristics into its name, others give
up and try something else. So there are creatures from Aa to Zyzzyx.
There are the palindromic names Ababa and Xela alex. There's a species
for every Tom, Dick and Harry: Ptomaspis, Dikenaspis and Ariaspis.
There are several moth species that easily could have come from that
novelty song "The Name Game": bobana, momana, fofana. These and other
unusual names have been compiled by Mark Isaak and are available at his
web site updated to http://www.curioustaxonomy.net/
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