A species by any other name...

by Kate C
Publish date
8 June 2012
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Strict rules govern the naming of animal species. You can't just discover a new ant or dinosaur and name it whatever you like; the name must be unique to that critter. Knowledge of Latin is handy too, since many names describe some feature of the animal in this ancient language, and all of them must adhere to its grammar. Proper identification and naming of species are important so that we all know we're talking about the same thing, and species names also describe the evolutionary relationships between different animals.

Despite the stringent rules, or perhaps because of them, scientists can be cheeky when they're choosing names for new species. You may have heard about the horsefly named after Beyonce because of its golden bottom, or the fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii named after a well-known cartoon sea sponge. I asked the staff of MV's Sciences Department for their favourite examples of the genre.

The palaeontologists kicked things off – in fact inspired this post – with Tom Rich's tale of Kryoryctes cadburyi, an ancient echidna named in honour of a chocolate reward promised to whoever found a mammal bone at the Dinosaur Cove dig. The extinct Cambrian mollusc, Yochelcionella daleki, suggested by David Holloway, was clearly named by a sci-fi fan, but Erich Fitzgerald volunteered an extant species. He suggested the Fossa, a Madagascan civet-like carnivore with a rather convoluted arrangement in its nether regions. Its genus, Cryptoprocta, is named for the pouch that not only conceals its anus but secretes a foul-smelling fluid; perhaps this is the inspiration for its species name, ferox, or 'ferocious'.

Fossa specimen Mounted specimen of a Fossa, Cryptoprocta ferox, on display at Melbourne Museum.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

Marine biologists are repeat offenders, it seems: Gary Poore named two new squat lobsters Uroptychus cyrano and U. pinocchio for their long noses, while Mark Norman and Julian Finn were clearly dazzled by the Indonesian octopus Wunderpus photogenicus when they named it. Robin Wilson suggested the short-lived but glorious former name of a particular clam. He says that Eames and Wilkins saw fit to name it Abra cadabra but "some subsequent taxonomist has spoiled the fun by moving it into another genus, and it is now known as Theora cadabra." The magic is gone, but it seems the taxonomy battles are not over yet: others call this species Theora mesopotamica.

For more fun with puns and facetious species, see the comprehensive collection of curioustaxonomy.net. Which is your favourite? 


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Research, Sciences

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.