«Charles Darwin’s barnacle and David Bowie’s spider», by Stephen B. Heard

How are species named?

Charles Darwin’s barnacle and David Bowie’s spider. How scientific names celebrate adventurers, heroes, and even a few scoundrels. Stephen B. Heard. Yale University Press. New Haven, 2020. 241 pages

As a specialist in a small family of beetles, I have been in the position of identifying new species, which needed to be described and given a name. The rules for naming an organism are simple: you have to choose a Latin name, which is left to the author’s discretion, opening up a wide range of possibilities. The most common is to give a name that evokes a distinctive characteristic of the species (such as Sphaericus hirsutus), or a geographical name (Ptinus venezolanus). It is also common to dedicate the species to someone, often to the person who collected the first specimens (Dignomus kukalovae), or to honour an important figure (Sundaptinus wallacei), or a loved one (Falsogastrallus theresae). Species names referring to someone are called eponyms, and they are the subject of Stephen B. Heard’s Charles Darwin’s barnacle and David Bowie’s spider.

The title itself is already a clue to the book’s journey. The brilliant scientist Charles Darwin is the person with the most species named after him, a total of 389, while David Bowie, the famous rock musician, had a spider named after him. David Bowie’s spider is called Heteropoda davidbowie and lives in Malaysia. It is a large, yellowish, hairy species, and when viewed from the front it may remind us of the singer’s painted face from early in his career. Heard’s book discusses other species named after musicians, from Beyoncé (with the fly Scaptia beyonceae) to Frank Zappa (with the cnidarian Phialella zappai). Fossil species, such as trilobites, have also been named after musicians, for example after the five members of the Sex Pistols, the four Beatles, or Simon and Garfunkel. In a few cases, insulting names have been chosen. A high-profile case was that of Swedish palaeontologists Elsa Warburg, who was Jewish, and Orvar Isberg, who sympathised with Nazi ideology, who in the 1950s and 1960s named a number of mutually offensive species. Warburg, for example, described the trilobite Isbergia planifrons (“flat-headed”), while Isberg chose the name Walburgia inicua (“wicked”) for a mollusc.

Heard also unveils the fascinating lives of some naturalists, such as Maria Sibylla Merian, who set sail for the Dutch West Indies in 1669 (when she was 52 years old), where she spent two years painting insects. Or Richard Spruce, who in 1849 began to explore the Amazon River basin with great effort and many hardships, where he collected more than 30,000 plants over a period of fourteen years. Merian discovered some sixty animals and forty plants, many of which bear his name, while Spruce has some 200 plant species dedicated to him. The book also discusses exceptional taxonomists such as Alex Alexander and his wife Mabel, who described more than 11,000 (yes, eleven thousand) Diptera typulidae, although the credit went to Alex in almost all cases, while Mabel remained virtually anonymous.

Written in a pleasant and approachable style, and accompanied by some charming drawings by Emily Damstra, Heard’s book allows us to discover some little-known curiosities about the quirks and fancies of taxonomists, and brings us closer to some naturalists who have been unjustly forgotten in the history of science.

© Mètode 2020 - 107. Oceans - Volume 4 (2020)
Director of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-UPF), Barcelona (Spain).