Monday, February 20, 2012

Species species of the Week week #1 OR The Whimsey of Nomenclature

I have been told, and I shall not say by whom, that the scientific name (1) for the green sea urchin is the longest currently assigned.  Weighing in at 32 letters, I present:

Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis
Ta-da! Oh, to bear the weight of so many syllables! (credit:

Now I don’t know if this claim is merely intertidal boosterism, but I do know that is a long name and it’s not immediately clear how one would know the pronunciation without initiation into a secret society (hint: "STRON-JUH-LO-SEN-TRO-TUS DRO-BAK-EE-EN-SUS"). 

In addition to being a marine nerd, I’m also a word nerd, and I dig on the etymology of how organisms are named and described by their scientific name, in part because it’s both lyrical and logical.  Just removed enough from common usage to make you feel like you are gaining insight into the natural world just by knowing the “true” name.  Scientists avoid using common names because,  Buff thighed puffley notwithstanding, these names are often vague, and are either shared by several species, or are only one of a list of names for a single species. 

However, the Genus species approach, AKA binomial nomenclature, though, perhaps, more precise, still only gives you a false sense of security that you know the true identity of an organism.  Scientific names are more dynamic that you would expect, as scientists move species into new genera believed to more accurately reflect their evolutionary history.  One of the snails I study is Ocinebrina inornata, but has variously been known as Tritonalia japonica, Ocinebrellus inornatus and is still identified by the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife as Ceratostoma inornatum  (2).  

Names are also logical - mostly.  True, some are named after people, those who discovered them, those who were/are influential in the field, or those who were important to the scientist in a more personal way.  But, more typically, the name tells a story about the organism, what it looks like, where it lives, or what it does.  Take the cumbersome sea urchin moniker.  According to a similarly word nerdy blogger: Strongylo = round, centrotus = spiky, droebach = Drobak, Norway, where the organism was first described.

Now for the Whimsey...

One of the types of names I am especially tickled by is double genus species names, where the name of the species is the same as the genus.  The poster child of double names, of course, is Gorilla gorilla.  Come on, say it out loud.  It’s a little bit whimsical, isn’t it?!  Imagine applying that to people names.  My last name is Grason and my parents joked about naming their firstborn son, my older brother, Grayson, so he would be Grayson Grason (same pronunciation).  What would you do if you met Grayson Grason?  Then again, maybe you already know folks that do have double names. 

This is not at all to make light of someone who might have the same first and last name.  In fact, I think of these organisms and people as the “type” specimen, the realized Platonic ideal of its kind, by comparison to which the entire group is defined.  Grayson Grason is the Grason-iest Grason.  Is Gorilla gorilla the gorilla-est member of the genus Gorilla. Is that really how you spell “Gorilla”? I’ve now been staring at it too long to tell.  Incidentally, according to Wikipedia (I know, my sources are unimpeachable), the name “gorilla” was derived from Greek meaning “tribe of hairy women” – lovely.

"Tribe of hairy women"? You decide.

So, what’s the deal? Did these folks run out of steam?  Well if a new species being named (3) is the only member of a genus, you could imagine it might end up with the same species as genus name.  But this isn’t always the case.  There are two species in the genus Gorilla for instance, so I would guess that G. gorilla came first.  I fully admit, I’m more interested in the names themselves than in speculating about, or spending much time doing research on, the origin of this naming trend. 

And so, here, with Gorilla gorilla, I mark the official launch of a [mostly irregular] series called 

Species species of the Week week

in which you can look forward to a highlight of some double named organism that has caught my fancy.  Certainly it won’t be weekly, and they won’t all be marine, but they will be cool.  I’d also love to hear what other people’s favorites are. 

Yup, footnotes.  I'm the David Foster Wallace of the Marine Ecology Blogosphere
1. You will perhaps recall from 9th grade biology, the scientific name consists of the two most (commonly used) specific taxonomic levels of classification - genus and species name for that organism, written as: Genus species. Just remember that King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti.
2. This makes it extremely difficult to find previous research on organisms because you’re never quite certain that there isn’t another synonym that you don’t know about.
3. There are a lot of rules for this sort of thing these days, no more naming things after yourself.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Scientistas of the World Part II OR More Swoonage

This post closes the loop on my promise to write about TWO Scientistas back in October for Ada Lovelace Day.  Get off my back, man, I said I'd do it!  Just kidding, absolutely no one but me is actually concerned about whether or not I write this post.  Except maybe my reader in Russia! Google tells me that I have three views on Rah Rah Radula from Russia.  Probably it's just someone phishing for my credit card number.  They'll probably succeed, but in the meantime maybe learn something about snails and science.  SUCKERS!

Part II: Sharon Strauss and More Swoonage

So, recalling that Ada Lovelace Day is all about inspirational women in STEM fields, I'd like to call your attention to Sharon Strauss.  Now, I have a bad habit of letting my first impressions get the best of me.  I first paper-met her  when I read a review she wrote with colleagues at UC Davis about how native species evolve in response to introduced species.  This is undeniably a cool topic.  To give you just a taste of what's going on out there:

Witness the Black Snake of Australia
Figure 1. Witness! Are you Witnessing? You better be! This handsome devil,
helpfully demonstrating "gape-limited predation" is Pseudechis porphyriacus. 
The Black Snake, Pseudechis porphyriacus, is native to Australia, where it preys on anything smaller than it's head (witness Figure 1), rodents, amphibians, whathaveyou. Wait did I just say amphibians?! In Australia?! That's right, Ima talk about CANE TOADS!!!  For those of you who haven't watched the never. -endingparadeof documentiaries. about this particular poster-child of biological invasions, cane toads were introduced to the continent-cum-island to control cane beetles in 1935. The beetles were accidentally introduced earlier and were problematic for the sugar cane growers.  Folks thought the toads (incidentally Bufo marinus) would solve their problem by eating the cane beetles.  But toads found everything else in Australia much tastier.  So cane toads became super abundant without solving the beetle problem.  In addition to eating everything except what they were supposed to, they also killed native things that ate them, because they secrete a toxin (witness Figure 2) when they are threatened or have road rage (it's ALL about inducible defenses people!).
Figure 2. Oh gross, that white stuff is bufotoxin and this toad is MAD!
So black snakes were eating cane toads and dying from actual food poisoning. But!...BUT! It appears that in approximately 23 generations of snakitude, this species has not only evolved increased resistance to the toxin (Phillips and Shine 2006), they also have evolved smaller heads (Phillips and Shine 2004).  What?! Smaller heads?! That's dumb.  No, smaller heads for a gape-limited predator means you can only eat smaller toads.  Smaller toads make less toxin.  Pinhead snakes eating small toads live to pass on their pinhead genes to the next pinhead generation. EVOLUTION: WIN! 

Anyway, that's way cool, but let's get back to the point

Shocking Upshot: I got really excited about this paper and this concept. Evolution happens so fast, and humans can cause it and we can see the effects!  So, naturally, the author was elevated to Science Goddess status.  But my hasty opinion of Sharon Strauss was formed on one paper only.  Last spring, as part of an ecology seminar, I reviewed and presented on a larger portion of her corpus, and you can imagine how much higher Sharon rocketed in my esteem (hint: way higher) when I realized how broad her research was (hint: pretty, pretty broad, witness the breadth of Figure 3).

Figure 3. Portrait of Sharon Y. Strauss and Friend.
In addition, and I wish ESA hadn't removed or archived this information because it will not have the same impact if I just tell you about it, she wrote this great piece in a profile about the joy of doing science that serves our curiosity.  Or at least that was what I took away from it, so it's entirely possible I'm getting this wrong or projecting.  I'm pretty sure it was something along those lines anyway.  My point is that my perception of Sharon Strauss is that she approaches not only the content of science thoughtfully, as demonstrated by the strength of her research program, but also the act of doing science, the living of a scientific life, of training more scientists.  If that sounds a bit grandiose, that's because it's how that makes me feel.  This is, I think, how we all start out, as scientists and/or students, but something we quickly lose sight of when we get bogged down in logistics of funding and politics of publication.  Or even before then when we have to cram so much knowledge into our heads because we are studying for qualifying exams and trying to remember why we thought this was a good idea in the first place and what do you with all this information that you don't have a context in which to place and didn't I learn all this before and why don't I remember it, it's a good thing I'm learning it now because I'll definitely remember it this time NO I'll never remember it it's too much and I don't even know what they're going to ask me I will definitely embarrass myself horribly in front of my committee and my life will be OVER!


OK. So that happened. Sorry.

Like many other passions one turns into a career, you can at least imagine how one might lose track of why one does Science when one is panicked about doing Science very well.  For me, Sharon Strauss was a timely reminder about big-picture thinking.  Inspirational scientists (and all scientists for that matter) aren't only about good science - lots of people do good science.  They are about doing good science with grace and generosity.