Simanaitis Says

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SCIENCE TYPICALLY avoids the word “whachamacallit,” which, with cool dictionary humor, Merriam-Webster defines as a “thingamajig.”

What’s more, humor possibly thought rare for science is discussed in Gregory R. Goldsmith’s article “What’s in a Name?” appearing in the March 30, 2018, issue of Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Goldsmith’s Science article is a review of Michael Ohl’s The Art of Naming. This book, translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer, has a scholarly side in linking biology, linguistics, philosophy, and information science. As cited in Goldsmith’s review, taxonomist Ohl has a sense of humor as well. Here are several examples, intermixed with the science of naming species.

The Art of Naming, by Michael Ohl, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer, MIT Press, 2018.

Taxonomy comes from Greek, τάξις, taxis, “arrangement,” and νόμος, nomia, “method.” Understanding a little Greek and a little Latin helps in deciphering scientific names of living things. Each member of the animal kingdom belongs to a particular phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Typical animal ID involves only the last two of these, with a possible added bit.

For example, Canis lupis familiaris, the dog, is a member of the lupis (wolf) species of the Canis (canine) genus, with an addition possibly specifying its breed.

The Uroplatus phantasticus is a member of the gecko lizard family that’s indigenous to the island of Madagascar. Including its flat tail (Greek: πλατύς, platys, “flat,” and οὐρά, oura, “tail”), this creature can be as long as 6 in. Its phantasticus moniker was well earned when discovered in 1888 by Belgian naturalist George Albert Boulenger.

This particular gecko is a Uroplatus phantasticus. Image from Science, March 30, 2018.

Agra schwarneggeri is a carabid beetle, the male of which has particularly well developed middle legs. Terry L. Erwin is a Smithsonian Institution entomologist who first described the Costa Rica-residing A. schwarneggeri in 2002. Others of the Agra genus named by Erwin include A. liv, (Liv Tyler) and A. katewinsletae, (Kate Winslet).

There’s a flatworm named Obama nungara residing in South America. But before you get your back (or hopes) up, be aware that the Obama genus of flatworm gets its name from oba “leaf” and ma, “animal,” two words in Old Tupi, an extinct language spoken by indigenous people of Brazil. The nungara part also comes from Tupi: It means “similar,” in that O. nungara is similar to an earlier discovered flatworm, O. marmorata.

Obama nungara. No letters, please, irate or otherwise.

Most O. nugara are less than 4 in. long; some can grow to 7.9 in. Flatworms are hermaphrodites, their reproductive systems having both male and female parts. Each O. nungara has hundreds of eyes distributed along its body. I can only imagine why.

On another train of thought completely, there’s the Gelae genus of beetle. Gelae, pronounced “jelly,” comes from the Latin gelasus, “congealed.”

Gelae genus of beetle. Illustration by Matthews, 1887.

Quite a few new species of Gelae were written up by beetle specialists Kelly B. Miller and Quentin D. Wheeler. These were named Gelae baen, Gelae belae, Gelae donut, Gelae fish, and Gelae rol.

And then there’s wasp expert Paul Marsh who, nearing retirement in 1993, described his last new species as Heerz lukenatcha.

Heerz lukenatcha wasp.

Who says scientists don’t have fun?

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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