ARE SOME PLANTS AND ANIMALS NAMED AFTER PEOPLE?
June 16, 2013
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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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