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.


  1. Great post. After a quick jog about the web I have come up with a new favorite tautonym: the mops mops. Although sadly, I can't seem to find any adorable photos of it. Maybe it's extinct. Can you use your scientific connections to find out more? If so, I'd be much obliged.

  2. I disbelieve your J-sounding G pronunciation. Latin don't play that.

  3. Thanks Jan for filling me in on what the actual word is for this whole deal, for some reason I was failing to generate that word. Incidentally, Mops mops is apparently popular enough to have a facebook page.

    On the subject of Latin pronunciation - agreed. The J sound is the pronunciation I have heard most often, but the G sound is, I'm sure, correct. I suspect pronunciation of Latin names could be modeled as a network process (just put me in the acknowledements), I bet it's largely passed down through lab and educator culture since so few people take Latin in school any more. Don't get me started on how few people say the word Dinoflagellates correctly (hint: if it sounds like it has anything to do with a T. rex, you're sayin' it wrong!).