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New species: What’s in a name?

Tony Whitten's picture
Notice any likeness? That's me to the left, and Thopeutica whitteni to the right.

In the last 10 days I’ve been told that two beetles have been named after me, something I find very flattering.  They join a rather bizarre eponymous bestiary of Whitten curiosities. The formal descriptions of these two species have not yet been published so I can’t say too much, but suffice it to say that one is a blind, long-legged cave-restricted beetle, and the other is a dung beetle. But before you scoff too loudly, remember that in Ancient Egypt the dung beetles or scarabs were objects of worship, capable of rolling the sun across the sky the same way they roll balls of dung for their larvae to eat.


Two of ‘my’ species would not exactly trip you up, and would more likely be crushed inadvertently. Both about 2 mm long, one is a blind, pale and pasty springtail found in a cave in Guangxi, and the other is a freshwater snail found in the northern part of Lake Poso in Central Sulawesi.

 Species names are fascinating. Often they are descriptive: longissimus (very long), alba (white), sylvestris (found in woods), or denote where they were found, such as braziliensis and mexicana. Sometimes, however, the person writing the formal description chooses to name a new species after a person.

 Animals named after both my wife and me have been given the plural Latinized epithet whittenorum and include a rather pretty goby fish we discovered near the famous Gitgit waterfall in Bali, and a gecko we discovered while living in the forest on Siberut. Luckily the goby is in the genus Lentipes, not from the related Stupidogobius. The male does, however, have rather peculiar, bilobed, auxiliary genitals.

The naming process for animals is very organized and has to be done according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Species can recall an individual but the Code’s ethics annex requires that these not be offensive according to the author’s best knowledge or reasonable belief. The man who started it all, the Swede Carl Linné (better known by his Latinized name Linnaeus) (1707-1778), started his work many years before the Code and he coined quite a number of risqué names based on sensitive parts of the human anatomy. 

"My" other bug, not officially named yet, is a blind cave beetle from Guangxi. Photo by Prof. Tian Mingyi.

Indeed, the fact that the whole basis of botanical nomenclature (which has a sister Code was based on the sexual parts of flowers so infuriated Johann George Siegesbeck, a German working at the St Petersburg Botanical Gardens, that he worked to have Linnaeus' books banned in Russia, and he never missed a chance to argue against the fundamental principles Linnaeus had founded. Linnaeus responded by finding the most unattractive, stinking, small flower in his collection and guaranteed his feelings for perpetuity. Siegesbeckia is now remembered as a genus of easy-to-ignore daisies. Linnaeus also took sideswipes at other colleagues and their physical imperfections.

 It is not surprising therefore that I pondered when I found that ‘my’ first whitteni was a bug-eyed tiger beetle, the next a thin, pale and largely transparent snail, and the next the goby mentioned above. 

A few years back I was involved with colleagues in attempts to name a new genus of snail after a major company in the extractive industries. This company was active in raising the bar in the practice of sustainable development and they deserved recognition even though their business requires it, by definition, to have a physical impact on the land it works. The snail was found in an area which they – and adjacent companies - were seeking to de-vegetate, blow apart and crush with possibly rather dire consequences for the continued existence of the two species in this new genus but they were open to giving biodiversity some attention. Out of courtesy, we informed the company before publication although this is not a requirement of the Code. The company was polite and was grateful for the thought (genus names are of course far less common than species) but its representatives asked that the name be changed. We argued back and forth and eventually gave in; but I have a lingering disappointment that we didn’t just go ahead.

Before I joined the Bank, another colleague and I named a new and exciting (for reasons I’ll write about some other time) cave crab after the project which was paying me at the time, the Environmental Management and Development in Indonesia project or EMDI.  I had hoped that such recognition would result in greater resources to be placed at my disposal – the ploy failed but the name endures.  My first Unit at the World Bank was the Asia Technical – Environment Unit (ASTEN) and in breaks from a meeting in Bali my wanderings in the hotel garden turned up a new species of snail which was named astenis when the Unit was dissolved.

Before finishing, here are some delightfully flippant names given to animals: Agra phobia (a ground beetle), Pieza kake and its relatives P. pi, P. rhea and P. deresistans (tiny Brazilian flies), Bombylius aureocookae (a bee-fly), Vini vidivici (an extinct parrot), Ytu brutus (a water beetle), Verae peculya, Heerz tooya and its sister species Heerz lukenatcha (parasitic wasps), and Phthiria relativitae.  You can find many more on sites such as Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature.


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