Species and genus names
October 21, 2009, 8:04 pm
Filed under: Thoughts | Tags: , ,

Species and genus names are often repulsive for many students, and the picture below illustrates probably how a young student would dream his pathway in biology.


However, names often have a function and/ or a story. This is what I would like to talk about today.

Species names can have a specific function which is to carry some information relative to the species itself. For example, it can provide information on the color, such as in Lasius niger (niger in latin means black), the morphology (Pheidole megacephala = giant head), the size (Plagiolepis pygmaea),  the behavior or ecology (Camponotus sylvaticus, sylva means forest in latin), on the provenance (Brachymyrmex patagonicus, from Patagonia in Argentina),…

But it can also be more personal, …

Often the author chooses a name in homage to someone else. Most of the time this is one of their colleague or less often  a member of their family. For example the new world genus Forelius was described in 1888 by the Italian myrmecologist Carlos Emery in honor of the Swiss Auguste Forel, and a few years later, in 1912 Forel described the new Oriental genus Emeryopone (can you guess in honor of who?). One more example with the beautiful African genus Santschiella described by Auguste Forel in 1916 probably in honor of the Italian myrmecologist Felix Sanstchi. Some other obvious genera names dedicated to myrmecologists are Bondroitia, Mayriella, Rogeria, or Wasmannia.

However, sometimes the species name is more surprising. For example today, I went through Pheidole harrisonfordi described by E.O. Wilson in 2003. It first made me laugh, but then I learned, thanks to my colleague Mike Weiser,  that Harrison Ford was really involved into conservation, especially with Conservation International. I found these two links that describes a little more the  reason why Han Solo deserved an ant species dedicated: CI link 1; and CI link 2

Another story which was famous a few years ago was the description by Brian Fisher in 2005 of a new ant from Madagascar: Proceratium google.  More info available on the official Google blog.

An other ant name that I like is the east European ant, Bothriomyrmex communista, described by Santschi from a specimen collected in Crimea (Russia) in 1919. Two years after the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917. Who said that History and Biology could not get along with each other?

Finally a name that has intrigued me at some point was Stenamma debile. In French (my native language), “debile” means stupid/ idiot. I thought that maybe A. Forster, the myrmecologist that described this species, was upset the day he described the species and decided to pass his frustration on the subject of his research. The fact is that in Latin, “debile” means weak, and so it refers probably to the morphology of the ant than its intellectual capacity!  And when I looked at the picture of S. debile, it can be perceived as a sort of fragile ant.

Let me know if you have more anecdotes or some name that you prefer for some reasons.


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