Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, October 12, 2006

CAENORHABDITIS, HEARNORHABDITIS

Just a couple of days ago, a news report announced the discovery of a new Brush-finch (top photo) in Colombia, about a month after a similar story reported the naming of Liocichla bugunorum, a new babbler (bottom) found in India. The Colombian bird, christened Atlapetes latinuchus yariguerum, is not actually a new species, but a subspecies of the Yellow-breasted Brush-finch. One interesting aspect of these two discoveries was the nature of the holotypes that were collected. Protocol demands that before a taxon is named, the specimen from which the description is taken must be collected, so that a model of comparison exists. In these two new cases, nothing more than photographs and DNA were retained as type specimens (although one of two captured A. l. yaguerum died before it could be released, and could presumably serve as a traditional type specimen). Should this new standard be accepted, it will obviate the need to sacrifice a precious member of a rare species. Still, the lack of a physical standard for the taxon will represent a scientific deficiency until computer modeling technology can fully replace study skins.

A new bird is usually described every year or so, but species of simpler creatures turn up with greater regularity. My friend Wayne Davis literally discovered a new species in his own back yard earlier this summer. Wayne's discovery belongs to the genus Caenorhabditis, the nematode group that includes the famous millimeter-long worm C. elegans, used in laboratory research for four decades. Wayne tells me that the most common question he fields, concerning his discovery, is the first one I asked: “What's it going to be called?” Binomial scientific names often involve entertaining stories, but Wayne's obligatory answer was a disappointing anticlimax: “Species #6.”

The nematode community decided that Sydney Brenner, whose pioneering molecular studies in 1965 established C. elegans as an ideal lab animal, should be honored by naming a Caenorhabditis species for him. After the decision was made, the first three species discovered were deemed too distant from C. elegans to bear his name, so they were given numbers, until an appropriate species could be found and named. Species #4 was closer to C. elegans, and it was decided that it should be named for Brenner, but the description is being done by an elderly German nematologist who communicates solely via snail-mail, and is in no rush to complete the job. In the meantime, subsequent discoveries are being given numbers until the issue is resolved. Wayne and his colleague, Michael Alion, who is describing the worm, also worry about some century-old Caenorhabditis species named before the days of electric freezers or DNA sequencing. The descriptions of long-ago discarded holotypes based solely on morphometric studies are useless today as standards, since morphometry can vary widely within a single species. These types can hardly be seen as representative of valid species, yet the names have not been deemed obsolete (as they probably should be), and one could possibly be given precedence over Michael's.
While the ball is in someone else's court, Wayne and Michael are mulling over possible names like expectant parents. They could name it for Salt Lake City, or figure out the Latin term for “rotten apricot,” the substrate from which they isolated the worm, or they could look in any number of other directions. In 2000, fellow Salt Laker Scott Sampson found the remains of a new theropod dinosaur on Madagascar. His party had noticed that they found better fossils while listening to Dire Straits, so Sampson christened the dinosaur Masiakasaurus knopfleri for the band's leader. Some news accounts called M. knopfleri the first species named for a musician, but that's far from the truth. Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin have all given their names to species. A goby genus and a species of snail, spider and jellyfish (not to mention two asteroids) were named for Frank Zappa. Australian paleontologist Greg Edgecombe has named many trilobites for musicians, including Avalanchurus lennoni, A. starri, Struszia mccartneyi and S. harrisoni for the Beatles, Mackenziurus johnnyi, M. joeyi, M. deedeei, and M. ceejayi for the Ramones, Aegrotocatellus jaggeri and Perirehaedulus richardsi for members of the Rolling Stones, and Arcticalymene viciousi, A rotteni, A. jonesi, A cooki and A. matlocki for the Sex Pistols. Another favorite Edgecombe trilobite taxon is the genus Aegrotocatellus (Latin for “sick puppy"). Cartoonist Gary Larson was honored with the naming of the beetle genus Garylarsonus. When the owl louse Strigiphilus garylarsoni was described, he quipped, “I considered this an extreme honor. Besides, I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me.” In the 1930s, ornithologist Col. Richard Meinertzhagen named well over a dozen species and subspecies of birds “theresae,” after Theresa Clay, a “confidante” 33 years younger than himself.

These are just a few interesting stories of scientific binomials. In the future I will probably devote a post to more of them, but for now I'll close this one with my favorite, a small catfish found in the Purus River in Brazil. It was described in 1980 by Nijssen and Isbrücker, who were lobbied hard by the collector, who insisted the fish should be named after him. After much consideration, Nijssen and Isbrücker honored his request, and named the fish Corydoras narcissus.
_____________________
upper: Photographs swiped from National Geographic Society
lower: HARRIS' ROSE BEETLE (1997) acrylic 3" x 5"

9 Comments:

Blogger elizabeth said...

Does Jonsey know about the trilobite? That's something he'd probably talk about on his radio show...

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Maybe you can tell Jonsey about the trilobite. I don't seem to have him in my Rolodex.

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