by Whit Gibbons

June 16, 2013

Q: I have a question about how scientists choose the names given to plants and animals. For example, two common ones out West are Gambel's quail and Douglas fir.

A: The scientific names given to plants and animals are traditionally assigned by the taxonomist who first describes the species. Descriptive common names are a result of general usage by people referring to the species in question; they may not even know what the scientific name is. The name of a person, place, or thing for which something is named is called an "eponym." That applies to popular culture, such as Ben and Jerry's eponymous ice cream, as well as the scientific and common names for animals and plants.

William Gambel, a mid-19th century naturalist explorer in the U.S. Southwest, was the eponym for the scientific name of the quail Callipepla gambelii. The transition to the common name is obvious. Douglas fir is more convoluted. David Douglas was a naturalist from Scotland in the early 1800s who explored the Pacific Northwest in search of plants, many of which were later successfully cultivated in Great Britain. He ultimately became the eponym for the common name of the well-known conifer in honor of his contributions to the commercial timber industry. The scientific name for Douglas fir is Pseudotsuga menziesii, which was in honor of another Scottish naturalist, Archibald Menzies. Menzies first discovered and introduced the later-to-be-called Douglas fir to science. Thus the eponym for the scientific name is different from the one for the common name.

Eponyms are rampant throughout the scientific literature and in the everyday names people use for familiar species. Knowing the backstory of how a particular person's name came to be used, including biographical information about that person, can be entertaining in its own right. "The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians" by Bo Beolens, Michael Watkins, and Michael Grayson (Pelagic Publishing, 2013; www.pelagicpublishing.com) offers an intriguing look at the phenomenon of naming animals, in this case frogs and salamanders, after people, real and fictional. As the authors note, "An eponym dictionary is a valuable resource for anyone, amateur or professional, who wants to decipher the meaning and glimpse the history" of the names of particular species.

One need not know anything about the appearance or biology of a particular species to enjoy learning about the person or thing for which it was named. The short anecdotal references in the book often provide insight into what motivates scientists to select a particular person to honor. For example, the Red Hills salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti) is an endangered species restricted to a few counties in southern Alabama. It was discovered in 1960 by Leslie Hubricht, who was collecting snails and happened upon the unusual salamander. Hubricht never completed high school, but according to the eponym book he was "a self-taught expert on molluscs who described 81 of the approximately 520 species of land snails known to exist in the USA." The Red Hills salamander can be categorized as an unusual and fascinating species ecologically. The book reveals that the person in whose honor the species was named was also unusual and fascinating. The fact that before his death at the age of 97 Hubricht's "collection of 500,000 land snail specimens was larger than the combined collections of the USA's major museums" is certainly noteworthy. As is the fact that he recognized the salamander he found as one new to science.

Not all of the anecdotes about eponymous people, places, and things are quite as interesting as the one for the Red Hills salamander, but all of the 1,609 names mentioned that are associated with 2,668 amphibian species provide a historical setting for what might otherwise be a dry and uninformative scientific name.

Incidentally, the book has one of the most effective table of contents I have ever seen. A ... page 1; G ... page 75, W ... page 226, etc. What easier way to find someone's name?

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