Readers’ wildlife photos

January 21, 2022 • 8:30 am

Today’s photos are from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior, and the topic is biological nomenclature: how these creatures were named. Do read all the captions. The descriptions are of course from Athayde, and are indented. You can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

This beetle had the bad luck of being described in 1937 by Oskar Scheibel, an Austrian amateur entomologist. Scheibel, supposedly an admirer of a powerful compatriot of sinister reputation, named the new species Anophthalmus hitleri. The elusive, eyeless cave beetle was already rare at the time of its description, but since then its numbers have plunged because of collectors and wackos obsessed by Nazi memorabilia: specimens have even been stolen from museums and sold on the black market for hundreds of pounds. Because of poaching, A. hitleri is now endangered and restricted to a few Slovenian caves. This beetle has been a flagbearer for the Woke Brotherhood’s Zoologist Chapter, which is on a mission to change names inspired by disreputable people. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature has resisted these demands, with good reason. Once a precedent is set, the Latter-day Puritans will demand the renaming of all creatures baptised after shady types such as Darwin, Huxley, John Muir and J.K. Rowling (more than ten species were named after Harry Potter characters); the moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi and the beetle Agathidium rumsfeldi would have to go, although the spider Aptostichus barackobamai is probably safe. Moralistic renaming would be foolish and cause immense confusion. Also, the Righteous Mob should consider that species naming is not necessarily laudatory: among other taxonomic stabs, Linnaeus made good use of the seed bug genus Aphanus (from the Greek for ‘obscure’) to name a species after his estranged student Daniel Rolander: Aphanus rolandri.  Indeed, naming a blind, cave-dwelling beetle after the Führer could be seen as a less than flattering move.

When a team of herpetologists examined a snake stored in a collection for 42 years, they discovered it had eaten another snake. Such findings are not particularly rare, but that semi-digested dinner turned out to be a hitherto unknown species – in fact, a new genus altogether. The image is an artist’s rendition of the meal before its consumption. The newcomer to science was christened Cenaspis aenigma: the enigmatic dinner snake, a name derived from the Latin cena(dinner) and aspis (snake) (Campbell et al., 2018. J. of Herpetology 52: 458-471). The snake, from Mexico’s Chiapas highlands, has never been seen in the wild, probably because it’s rare, elusive and nocturnal. Or it has gone extinct. This case was not unique:  the ant Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri was discovered in a barf sample collected from an Ecuadorian frog, and named after distinguished myrmecologist and E.O. Wilson’s collaborator, Bert Hölldobler.

It took 42 years for Darwinilus sedarisi to come to light, which is understandable because the creature was hidden in the belly of another snake. One rover beetle on the other hand remained unknown for over 180 years despite being in plain sight, so to speak: the specimen was catching dust in the Natural History Museum (London). American entomologist Stylianos Chatzimanolis borrowed it to discover that the beetle belonged to an undescribed genus. As it had been collected in Argentina by Charles Darwin during a HMS Beagle stopover, Chatzimanolis deservedly named the genus Darwinilus. For the species epithet, he chose sedarisi to honour raconteur David Sedaris, who is famous here in Britain for his books, BBC Radio 4 monologues and litter-picking activism (Chatzimanolis, 2014. Zookeys 379: 29–41).

Every name has a story, even if it’s a sketchy one. Paul Williams, a bumblebee specialist at the Natural History Museum (London), painstakingly tracked down scraps of information about a shabby, mislabelled specimen collected about 200 years ago and sitting in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Paul concluded it belonged to Bombus rubriventris, an extinct bumble bee from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, one of the world’s richest and most threatened biomes (Williams, 2014. J. of Natural History 10.1080/00222933.2014.954022). We know nothing else about this bee; that pinned specimen lying inside a dark drawer is the only evidence left of a species that once buzzed from flower to flower, probably pollinating some lucky plants. Considering the greatest environmental disaster ever to befall Brazil, that is, the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president, certainly there will be more sad stories about extinct Brazilian species.

Ytu,the word for ‘waterfall’ in Tupi-Guarani (a group of native languages spoken in Brazil and Paraguay), is a suitable name for a genus of water beetles. So when entomologist Paul Spangler discovered a new species, how could he not name it Ytu brutus? (Spangler, 1980. The Coleopterists Bulletin 34: 145-158).

Entomologist Terry Erwin probably was one of the most prolific taxonomic punsters, and he had great fun with the ground beetle genus Agra. Erwin named more than a hundred Agra species, including Agra nola, Agra vate, Agra vation, Agra cadabra and Agra memnon. He also named Agra schwarzeneggeri, a beetle with unusually thick ‘arms’, and Agra eowilsoni, after E.O. Wilson. Erwin was witty, but also a great entomologist. His short, unpretentious paper where he hypothesized the existence of around 30 million species of insect on the planet has been cited hundreds of times (Erwin, 1982. The Coleopterists Bulletin 36: 74–75). One subfamily, 2 genera and 47 species are named after him. Here is Agra vation:

John Epler, an expert on Chironomidae (non-biting midges) and other aquatic insects, made good use of his Classics education to honour his favourite band with a new species: Dicrotendipes thanatogratus, from the Greek thanatos (dead) and Latin gratus (grateful) (Epler, 1987. Evolutionary Monographs 9: 102).

A short explanation for those unfamiliar with the art of biological nomenclature: in scholarly texts, the first citation of a plant or fungus’ scientific name (rules for animals are slightly different) is followed by the name of the person who described the species, e.g., Amaranthus retroflexus L. (L. is a standard abbreviation for Linnaeus). When a name is changed, for example moved to another genus, the original authority goes in parenthesis, followed by the name of the person who made the change, e.g. Hyacinthoides italica (L.) Rothm. So when German mycologist Karl Wilhelm Gottlieb Leopold Fuckel discovered a new species of wood-rotting fungus, it was named Nectria applanata Fuckel. But some years later his compatriot Carl Ernst Otto Kuntze moved the species to another genus, resulting in the delightful Cucurbitaria applanata (Fuckel) Kuntze (Gräfenhan et al., 2011. Studies in Mycology 68: 79-113).

The people of Guadeloupe have a soft spot for their only large wild mammal: the raccoon. The masked creature is pictured on stamps, toys, and in a national park logo. Raccoons are notorious for raiding crops and wrecking nests of wild bird and sea turtles, but these shenanigans do not dent their popularity: islanders have long treated the Guadeloupe raccoon (Procyon minor) as a protected species. Then in 2003, the celebrity status of the Guadeloupe raccoon suffered a serious blow. By examining museum specimens, taxonomists discovered that Procyon minoris in fact a subspecies of the common raccoon, Procyon lotor. (Helgen et al., 2008. J. Mammalogy 89: 282–291). This seemingly finicky academic study led to all hell breaking loose: the common raccoon is an alien species in the Caribbean islands. Even worse as PR goes, Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France, so legally speaking, the archipelago is part of the European Union. As the common raccoon is listed as a European invasive species, France has the obligation to eradicate or control it. The people of Guadeloupe were not having any of it: there have been strong words between locals and authorities.

Nessiteras rhombopteryx– The scientific name given to the Loch Ness monster by Sir Peter Scott, renowned ornithologist, conservationist, naval officer and Olympics medallist, and Robert Rines, American lawyer and composer (Scott & Rines, 1975. Nature 258: 466-468). Many were bewildered by Scott’s action – Rines on the other hand was well known in the woo-woo field of cryptozoology. That Nature went along with it was equally puzzling – one can imagine that Scott’s reputation helped the publication. Scott reasoned that a scientific name would give legal protection to the beast, in case it was real. But Scott was lambasted for promoting pseudo-science. Later, a British politician and newspaper – perhaps in an effort to protect the reputation of a British icon – claimed that the name was an anagram for ‘Monster hoax by Sir Peter S’. Rines denied it, pointing out that ‘Yes, both pix [a reference to the paper’s pictures] are monsters – R‘ was an alternative letter arrangement. In other words, the confession anagram was a coincidence. The paper was unlikely to have been a hoax, considering the time and effort Scott dedicated to this fantasy. He created the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, goaded colleagues into reviewing evidence, and even pulled strings with the Royal Navy to obtain military searchlights to sweep Loch Ness. Incidentally, Scott & Rines taxonomic foray was in vain: the scientific name (which was drawn from the Greek for ‘Ness inhabitant with diamond-shaped fin’) was not valid because it lacked a type specimen (a specimen on which the description and name of a new species is based). The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which rules on these things, would recognise a description based on photos. But certainly not the paper’s blurred images, which in all likelihood were doctored (but not taken by the authors). Scott may have gone momentarily wobbly, which happens to the best: Newton was an alchemist, Nobel Prize double winner Linus Pauling promoted vitamin C to cure cancer, and Alfred Russel Wallace believed in communicating with spirits.

26 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Outstanding collection with very interesting and informative text accompanying them.
    I particularly liked the Loch Ness article which contained “stuff” I have never heard before.
    Thank you.

  2. “Latter-day Puritans”

    That is perfect.

    This intriguing post illustrates, I think, the “Color of the Bikeshed” problem : where complex and here, fascinating important phenomena are at play, at some point some people will be lost – but its the superficial stuff where vast, strong opinion rushes in : what the name is.

  3. Readers who like these stories may be interested in Stephen Heard’s great book, “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.” It came out in 2020. Steve also has a good book on scientific writing that I used for my lab group — the second edition is just out. No affiliation, just a colleague/acquaintance.

  4. I think Pauling back-pedaled a bit at some point on the Vitamin C mega dose thing – maybe he was in a hubristic mood one day and it will never go away now…?

  5. Very interesting post. Thank you for taking the time to clearly explain the rudiments of taxonomy to a lay person like me.

  6. Thanks for an interesting and enjoyable post.
    I will admit that the really goofy pun names–Agra vation, for example–leave me cold. You need to have a legitimate Noun/adjective combo for it to really be funny.

  7. Thanks everybody for the kind comments. For those interested in exploring the subject, John Wrigth’s “The naming of the shrew: a curious history of Latin names” is a great source. The book cited by Marlene (#4) has had good reviews, but I have not read it.

    1. I really enjoyed your writing and your information. As you note, not all the names are meant to honor the namee. A new caecilian (a legless snake-like amphibian) was recently named Dermophis donaldtrumpi because it is a blind anmal that buries its head in the sand. The moth you mentioned, Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, was so named because it has a toupe-like patch of whitish scales on its forehead.

  8. Interesting post! Are those sensory hairs protruding from the elytra of the blind beetle? I’ve never seen these on sighted beetles.

  9. Thanks for the learnings. Each description was engrossing and fascinating. Though some of those names were groaners. 🙂

  10. The bee is labeled “St. Domingue”– a couple of centuries ago that would be the island of Hispaniola. I’ve not looked up the original description, but why did the describer think it was from Brazil?

    Also, the name Nessiteras rhombopteryx is available– the Code of Zoological Nomenclature requires no specimens or even illustrations to make a name correctly published. The validity of a name is different from availability, though, and is usually a matter of taxonomic opinion, not a matter for the Code. (Freedom of taxonomic opinion is a key tenet of the Code.) Almost no one regards the name as valid, not because the name wasn’t properly published, but because the zoological taxon it was intended to apply to does not exist. (The Code does exclude the names of “hypothetical concepts” from availability, but it is clear that Scott and Rines considered it to be the valid name of a species which they believed they had taken photographs of.)

    Great stories– thanks for sharing!


    1. The story is complicated, involving contradictory labelling information, and notes from people who examined the specimen. The ”St Domingue’ is likely a reference to one of the many places in Brazil named ‘ São Domingo’, which is supported by the fact that one of the labels attached to the bee says ‘Bresil’. Paul’s zeroing in on the Atlantic Forest was based on the bee’s morphology.

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