Taxonomic practice, creativity, and fashion: What’s in a spider name?
Preprint posted on 9 February 2022 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.02.06.479275v1
Finding a new species is surely the aspiration of many budding David Attenborough’s. Sadly, and despite a brief foray into field work, I’ve never found a new species, but I can imagine deciding what to call the new animal you’ve discovered is a fun job with lots of potential for creativity. That’s not to say you have complete artistic license when it comes to etymology: since the mid-1700s, biologists have followed the Linnean binomial system of nomenclature, which names all species with two Latin words. The first is its genus, and the second is the species epithet, or more specific part of the species name. They’re also always written in italics – so Canis familiaris is the official name for your pet spaniel or chihuahua (Canis = dog, familiaris = friend), and modern humans are formally known as Homo sapiens (Homo = man, sapiens = wise). Beyond the two-name convention, there aren’t any strict rules for what words you can pick to describe your new species. In the examples I gave above, the names are quite straightforward: I’m sure lots of dog owners would view their pet as a friend, and modern humans have bigger brains than our evolutionary brothers and sisters, so ‘wise’ is a logical choice. But some scientists really go to town with their new names – they might use geographical cues to reference where a species was found, or a physical feature of the animal to distinguish it from other related species, or even name the animal after a loved one or public figure. Spare a thought for Beyonce, who I think is deserving of a more charismatic namesake than the horse fly Scaptia beyonceae.
Much like baby names, trends in species names have changed over the years, but until now this hadn’t been studied in any great detail. In this preprint, Mammola et al. (2022) analyse the names of all spider species described since the onset of Linnaean nomenclature in 1757 to May 2020 and investigate how naming conventions have been influenced by cultural trends. Unfortunately for arachnophobes, this represents an impressive collection of 48,464 species.
The authors downloaded the entire taxonomy of the World Spider Catalog and classified species names into six general categories with sub-categories therein:
Morphology: when the name referred to the size, shape, or appearance of the spider
Ecology & behaviour: when the name referred to the habitat or behavioural adaptations of the spider
Geography: When the name referred to the geographical distribution of the species
People: When the species name was dedicated to a scientist or other person
Modern & past culture: When the name refers to contemporary or historical culture (mythology, music, trends)
Other: When the name didn’t fit into any of the above categories (e.g., puns, based on anecdotes)
Some species belonging to more than one category. Further sub-categories were then used within these broader classifications.
Based on these classifications, the authors analysed how etymology changed over time based on etymology type, whether trends across time were different between continents, and whether etymology was different between continents.
- Of the spiders included, the authors found that most were named based on their morphology or geographical distribution (41% and 27%, respectively). 19% of spiders were named after people.
- Over time, the authors found some interesting trends in how scientists name species. Up to ~1900, the most common naming references came from morphology and ecology. As this declined, there was an increase in etymologies dedicated to people and geographical distribution. Currently, geography is the most common source of etymology (37% species names in the last ten years refer to geography).
- Since 2000, the authors found an increase in the use of names referring to cultural events or trends.
- Generally speaking, the authors found these trends to be consistent across geographical regions. However, they did observe some continent-specific trends. For example, spiders from Europe were more likely to be named after people, and less about their morphology; spiders from Africa were less likely to be allocated a geographical-related name.
Why is this important?
I thought this preprint was a great read. Firstly, this work shows that, particularly in recent years, there is an increasing trend to use cultural references to name species. Scientists might think that their work is purely of an academic nature, unbothered by cultural trends, but as the authors of this preprint point out, both science and scientists themselves are influenced by culture and society. Nomenclature is an interesting way of charting these influences over the decades. Naming new species after celebrities or cultural references is also great for science communication – just google the Beyonce insect I mentioned before, and you’ll see plenty of news articles about it, which I doubt would have happened had it been named after the region of Australia in which it was found.
Secondly, the preprint details how traditional taxonomy is a bit of a dying art as molecular phylogenetics and large-scale genetic sequencing projects take over. But taxonomy is fascinating – you only have to go to a botanical garden or natural history museum to see that – and this preprint sheds some light on the ‘fun’ side of taxonomy and nomenclature. Lastly, the idea of having a species named after you is quite appealing (perhaps not the horse fly, though). The preprint ends with the authors reflecting on two new species recently named after the taxonomist’s husbands: an example of expressing love through science. With that in mind I’ll happily take offers of a new species to be named after me, but maybe I’ll reserve the right to decide which one it ends up being.
Thank you to preLighter Kristina for her feedback on this post
Posted on: 7 March 2022Read preprint
Also in the scientific communication and education category:
Leadership in PhD (LeaP): a longitudinal leadership skill building program for underrepresented biomedical research trainees
|Selected by||Kanika Khanna|
Addressing structural mentoring barriers in postdoctoral training: A qualitative study
|Selected by||Reinier Prosee et al.|
I Am A Scientist: Overcoming implicit bias in STEM through explicit representations of diversity in lectures
|Selected by||Reinier Prosee|