N is for Naming

Next time you happen to be walking though the Chamela-Cuixmala nature reserve on the West Coast of Mexico, keep your eyes out for this parasitoid wasp:

Image from a paper by Alejandro Zaldívar-Riverón, Juan José Martínez, Fadia Sara Ceccarelli, and Scott R. Shaw
Image from a paper by Alejandro Zaldívar-Riverón, Juan José Martínez, Fadia Sara Ceccarelli, and Scott R. Shaw

Its scientific name is Heerz lukenatcha.  There is also a related wasp named Heerz tooya.  Who comes up with these things!?

Biologists, it turns out.

The current official naming system for animals is run by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).  This multi-national commission, based at the Natural History Museum in London, keeps track of all the rules as well as the accepted names.

[There are also separate codes for other types of organisms  – see this wikipedia page for a list of the codes and prepare to go down an Oryctolagus cuniculus hole]

Generally, the first person to find an organism, make sure it hasn’t been named yet, and submit a scientific paper naming it, will get to choose a name.  While there is quite a bit of freedom, the ICZN does provide the following guidance: “Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.”

That guidance does get stretched sometimes.


During a 1980 entomological expedition to the Andes, one member of the team kept shouting “sh*t man, f*ck!” every time something went wrong.  I guess a lot of things went wrong, because before long the whole team started calling the expedition the SMF Expedition.  When a new genus of beetle was discovered, they named it Esemephe (pronounced SMF).  They justified it to the ICZN by saying that it was a melding of the greek words essymenos (hurrying) and ephestris (mantle), but everyone else knew it was really a reference to SMF.

Not so compact, euphonious, or memorable

The longest accepted scientific name is Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, a species of fly.  At 42 characters, its only three short of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, the longest word in the English dictionary.

Straight up offensive

Some names were actually designed to be offensive.  Two paleontologists, Cope and Marsh, basically had a naming war at the end of the 19th century.  Marsh seemingly struck the first blow, submitting Mosasaurus copeanus (-anus is a greek suffix meaning ringed).  Later, Cope named an extinct mammal Anisonchus cophater for all of his haters.  I guess he just wanted to shake it off.

This trend was repeated in the 20s with swedes Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg.  In 1925, Warburg named a trilobite Isbergia planifrons, after Isberg’s apparently flat forehead (an insult in Scandanavia).  In 1934, Isberg retaliated with a mussel he named Warburgia crassa, after Warburg’s girth (crassa=fat).

Just funny

Sometimes, biologists just feel silly.  Here are a few of my favourite scientific names, as a reminder that scientists can be funny.

There is a genus of fungus beetles called Gelae.  The species names are baen, belae, donut, fish, and rol.  Put those together and you get a whole bunch of tasty treats!  There is another genus of beetle called Agra, and one biologist in particular, Terry Erwin, has had a lot of fun over the years with some punny species names like cadabra, memnon, and vation.

Sometimes biologists go for the celebrity names, like a beetle named Scaptia beyonceae for the yellow fur on its behind or a fossil fly named Carmenelectra shechisme (pronounced Carmen Electra, She Kiss Me).  In 2013, Carmenelectra shehuggme was also added.

Other times, taxonomists like to make you read it a few times, like a moth named Eubetia bigaulae or a scarab in a large family named Cyclocephala nodanotherwon.

For hundreds of more interesting biological names, visit curioustaxonomy.net

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