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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

WHAT did you say it's called?!

Well, we're just back from a month's trip to central Australia, showing a group of people the natural wonders of that magnificent area. Naturally enough there will be postings here flowing from that trip, but I've got quite a bit of work to do yet on my pics before they'll be ready to use. So today, a somewhat flippant look at some scientific names of plants and animals which would elicit a big WHOOPS! from the perpetrating author if they could see them with the benefit of our knowledge. Their mistakes range from changes that take place in specimens after death, to mislabelling, to good old-fashioned typos. In each case, bad luck, the rules of taxonomy don't allow us to correct a published name, no matter how misleading or even downright erroneous it may be!

One of my favourites is that of the common and widespread Australian Green Tree Frog, a magnificent animal which happily lives in buildings throughout northern and north-eastern Australia. It's called Green for a very good reason, but bizarrely its scientific name is Litoria caerulea, caerulea being Latin for dark blue. The reason lies in a curious quirk of chemistry, whereby the frog, when preserved in formalin, turns blue!
Green Tree Frog, Karumba, Queensland.
The green colour is based on reflected blue light from specially shaped cells (more on that here)
passing through an overlay of yellow pigment - the yellow pigment was stripped off by the preservative.
A rather lovely little orchid, which only flowers in the spring after hot summer fires, is misnamed similarly; when dried the red flowers turn black - hence Pyrorchis ('fire orchid') nigricans ('blackish').
Undertaker Orchid, Brisbane Ranges NP, Victoria.
This common name derives from the same phenomenon as the scientific Pyrorchis nigricans.
In some cases the author completely misunderstood what they were naming; this is particularly obvious in some of the early names for marsupials.
Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroos Dendrolagus lumholtzi, Yungaburra, Queensland.
The 19th century German naturalist and collector, Salomon Mueller, coined the genus name
Dendrolagus, meaning 'tree hare'.
Yellow-footed Rock-Wallaby Petrogale xanthopus, Flinders Ranges, South Australia.
This one is even weirder - Petrogale means 'rock weasel'! This was down to John Edward Gray,
Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum, in 1837. Other marsupial genera were also named accordingly.
Fredrick Hasselqvist was a Swedish student of Linnaeus, who travelled through the middle east and Egypt, where he reported a bird that he said the Egyptians called Sacred Ibis; Linnaeus subsequently gave this name (ibis) to the bird. Sadly for both, it was the wrong bird...
Cattle Egrets Ardea ibis, Nowra, New South Wales.
Problems have arisen too when an atypical sample was used as the type specimen, on which the description and name was based. Snow Gums Eucalyptus pauciflora for instance have profuse flowers, but the specimen received by ill-fated Czech botanist Franz Sieber did not, hence the pauciflora - 'sparse flowering'. Another example is provided by the genus Xanthosia, the southern cross flowers, family Apiaceae. English botanist Edward Rudge received specimens from Sydney of the species he named Xanthosia pilosa - it was a bold decision to name the entire genus from the Greek for yellow on the basis of one specimen, and it backfired because not only are most species in the genus white-flowered, but X. pilosa itself is variable, and often has white flowers...
Xanthosia pilosa, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
A variation on this theme is provided by another genus, Ceratopetalum, family Cunoniaceae. The most familiar species here is NSW Christmas Bush C. gummiferum, which is also the type species. The genus name means 'horn-like petals', due to their shape. Unfortunately for the great John Smith who named the genus, another common species, the Coachwood of NSW sub-tropical rainforests, had no petals at all - it is hard to avoid the impression that Scottish botanist David Don was making a point when he called it Ceratopetalum apetalum, surely an utterly nonsensical name!
Coachwood Ceratopetalum apetalum, Morton NP, New South Wales.
Attempts to determine behaviour based on fossil evidence can be very exciting - but to set such opinions in stone (as it were) by basing names on them can be fraught. The Mongolian dinosaur genus we call Oviraptor (the 'egg thief'), one of the small hunters of the time, was so called by US palaeontologist Henry Osborn in the 1920s, because its skull was found virtually on top of a nest of dinosaur eggs. Later it became clear that the eggs were its own, and it was tending them when it died; I believe that its descendants' lawyers are preparing a case for defamation.

A simple typo can be fatal for an unwary author too - once published it can't be corrected, as a couple of eminent botanists have discovered. One of the most eminent, the Scot Robert Brown, wanted to honour his French colleague, the magnificently named Jean-Baptiste Louis Claude Théodore Leschenault de La Tour, botanist on the Baudin expedition to Australia. Unfortunately Brown's French failed him, and he omitted the 's' from Leschenault's name. It was corrected for a while, but eventually the taxonomy police ruled that Brown's error had to stand.
Lechenaultia biloba, Yandin Hill Lookout, Western Australia.
A magnificent tribute to Leschenault, and we honour him as intended in the vernacular names -
in this case simply Blue Leschenaultia.

Brachyscome is a familiar Australian daisy genus, named by another Frenchman, Henry Cassini, in 1816 - the name means 'short hair', but he soon after realised that the correct Greek construction when joining the words was Brachycome and corrected it (I confess that I much prefer the 'correct' version). This is a contentious one, but the ruling came down on the side of consistency, so Brachyscome it is in the Floras and on the labels in botanic gardens.
Brachy(s)come nivalis, Namadgi NP, above Canberra.
There are several significant examples from Australia of specimens being mislabelled (working too many late nights and long days?), or labels being illegible or even mixed up. The Squirrel Glider is Petaurus norfolcensis, but has never occurred on Norfolk Island and the specimen originated in Sydney.
Green Rosella Platycercus caledonicus, Ben Lomond NP, Tasmania.
This species is restricted to Tasmania, but somehow the specimen label read 'Nova Caledonia' (ie New Caledonia).
Laughing Kookaburras Dacelo novaeguineae, Canberra.
A very familiar Australian kingfisher indeed, but despite the name, not found in New Guinea.
Somehow the place of origin morphed from New South Wales to New Guinea, but in this case it seems to have been
a deliberate porky on the part of Frenchman Pierre Sonnerat, who obtained the skin in New South Wales, but wanted
to claim he'd explored New Guinea, so described it as from there. He had form - he also tried to pass off stolen penguin skins as having been collected by him in New Guinea! His compatriot Johann Hermann believed him and named it accordingly. It is ironic that Hermann's name was lost for over a century, and the species name gigas ('big'), applied by Dutchman Pieter Boddaert, was used, which in this case seems just. However in the 1950s Hermann's priority was established (he'd published just before Boddaert), perhaps unfortunately in this instance...
So, names... Just human conceits of course, albeit invaluable ones for communication. If we can be amused by them, so much the better. They're never as important and interesting as the organisms on which we've bestowed them of course though.

BACK ON FRIDAY (for Sweden's national day)


Harvey Perkins said...

Thanks, Ian. Another great expose of mendosoneologia.

Flabmeister said...

Is it not strange that the taxonomy police will not allow correction of such rampant daftness but are quite happy to play 52 pickup with names if a couple of DNA bases swap position?

Ian Fraser said...

Hmm, thanks for that Harvey... You'll be pleased to know that I tried to look it up, and failed, as I'm sure you intended! Neologia - creation of new words - is fine, but the beginning? Same root as mendacious (lying, faulty), or as mendicant (begging, impoverished)? My guess is 'dishonest creation of new names', but overall you win, I need assistance! (You there Jeannie Gray?)

Martin, I knew that your new-found amity towards taxonomists (per a recent posting of yours) couldn't last, and that this would get you going again!