What’s in a name?

2014-01-09 00:00

AMONG the many interesting things we read during the time of Nelson Mandela’s funeral were a few things that are not generally known about Madiba (The Witness, December 5). An item that caught my eye was the fact that scientists have named a number of species after the great man.

Among these is a prehistoric woodpecker, a sea slug and two species of spider. Being an insect taxonomist, I get to name new species and so it occurred to me that the average person has little idea of what is involved — so let me enlighten you.

I am often asked if I find new species when I go on my frequent field trips to collect insects. The short answer is yes, but I have to confess that I do not always realise it. The problem is that you need to be able to recognise all the known species before you can identify something that is new to science. As insect specialists, we have hundreds, if not thousands of species to contend with, so it is not always easy to spot something new.

When you do discover something new, someone has to publish a formal description of the species, making sure that they provide the necessary evidence to prove that it is, indeed, new. A name is provided, which has to comply with internationally recognised criteria. The full name of a species can be likened to what we consider our full names to be — firstly there is a surname (the generic name) and then a first name (the specific name). In the case of animal and plant names, a full citation would also include the name of the person who described the species and the year in which this was done. As an example, let’s consider the common domestic house fly whose full name is Musca domestica Linnaeus, 1 758 (note that the generic and specific names are always in italics). I am also asked if I have described new species, and again the answer is yes — many, in fact well over 500. Once a name is formally provided, it lasts forever and so an appropriate name needs careful consideration. Although opinions differ on what constitutes a good name, I believe that the best name is short, easy to pronounce and easily associated with the species being described. Bearing in mind that scientific names are usually based on Latin or Greek, a knowledge of these classical languages is useful — although there are excellent books that assist in the choosing of names. Great care needs to be taken in making sure that a name is chosen that has not been used within the genus before, otherwise a synonym is created and someone has to rename the species. I believe the best names are those that relate to the appearance of the species. For example, if it has black legs then the Latin name nigripes — meaning “black legs” — is clearly appropriate, especially if none of the other species in the genus has black legs. Other good names tell you where you are likely to find the species — something called natalensis can be assumed to come from the province of KZN. Many species are named after people who have contributed to the knowledge of our wildlife. Scientists never describe species after themselves as it is enough to have one’s name and the year of publication associated with the name. Another question I get asked is, “Have you had a species named after you?” Again the answer is yes, about 35 species are named londti, londtorum, londtiana or jasoni. It is always a great honour to have your work recognised by other scientists in this way.

Although Mandela never involved himself directly in scientific studies he did, without a doubt, contribute towards providing an environment in which scientific pursuits were possible, and so to honour him by naming species after him is entirely appropriate. Early in 2013, I described a new species of predatory fly, giving it the name Bana madiba in honour of our hero, and so this too can be added to the list of patronyms that have been bestowed upon the great man. May we always be reminded of the legacy that Mandela has left us.

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