A Dalliance between Science and Literature – Naming Animals

I currently edit a scientific journal. Writing and editing science are of course different from writing and editing literary works. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference is the typically dry, unemotional language and style of scientific papers. Science writing has become a bit more relaxed and less stilted and proper in recent times, but is still saddled with having to be accurate and precise and usually is less than inspiring to the lover of words and language.

There is one area of scientific writing where the scientist with poetry in his soul might get by with being lyrical – the description of a new species of animal. The way we name species was established by the great 18th century Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. The tenth edition (1758) of his classic book, Sytema Naturae included scientific names for more than 12,000 species of plants and animals. He devised what is called “binomial nomenclature” in which each animal is given a name comprised of two parts, and he set up a classification system based on a nested hierarchy of animals that depicts how they appear to be related.

Each animal’s unique two-part name, the binomen, consists of a genus name and a species name. A genus may have more than one species associated with it. For example, Canis lupus, the gray wolf, and Canis latrans, the coyote, are both in genus Canis. Canis is Latin for “dog”. Lupus is Latin for “wolf”, while latrans is Latin for “barking.” Thus Canis lupus literally means “wolf dog” and Canis latrans “barking dog.”

The binomen is always treated as a Latin phrase, and is italicized. (Even if the origin of the name is a Greek word, or even an imaginary word, it is treated as a Latin word when used in a binomen.) The genus name is capitalized, the species name is not. The species name may be an adjective (modifying the genus name in some way), in which case it must agree in gender with the genus name according to rules of Latin grammar (the species name may also be a noun, in which case it need not agree in gender). There are all sorts of rules established for assigning names correctly, and for determining precedence in the event that two scientists happen to apply the same name to different animals. The rules are set down in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. By now MFA English majors are sighing in boredom, linguists are going “mmmmmm,” and zoologists are saying “I already knew all that.”

The point of this is that there are rules for the naming of species but there is a lot of latitude in selecting the names themselves. Some zoologists seem to use almost no creativity in assigning names, others can be quite inventive. In most papers in which species are newly described, there is required to be a section titled “Etymology,” in which the scientist’s derivation of the binomen is explained. That is precisely where examples of discrete or disgraceful dalliances between science and literature may be observed. Let me give some examples.

It is in poor taste to name an animal after yourself, but naming one after another person is a way of giving that person a sort of enduring recognition – the name will be around as long as people are studying and naming animals. Here is a picture of the front wing of an insect that lived about 275 million years ago in what is today Oklahoma (I study and name fossil insects, which most often are preserved as wings).


(From: Roy J. Beckemeyer, 2004, “Raaschiidae (Grylloblattida: Protoperlina), a new insect family from the Lower Permian Wellington Formation of Noble County, Oklahoma,” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 77(3): 215-221.)

The specimen was collected in fossil beds that were discovered in the 1940’s by geologist and paleontologist Gilbert O. Raasch (1909-1999). The insect was sufficiently different from known related insects that I assigned it to a new genus, and named the genus after Raasch. To “Latinize” the name, I called the insect Raaschia. It still needed a specific name, and I chose the rather mundane practice of using the location where the specimen was found. When doing this, the place name is given the ending “-ensis,” meaning “from.” The name for the insect became: Raaschia oklahomensis. Not that inventive or poetic, but it is an honorific that recognizes Gil Raasch and permanently links him to the state of Oklahoma. And I did like the slight alliteration of the “s” sound in the two names.

Another interesting example may be found in a paper on fossil insects from Alabama that I coauthored with Michael Engel of Kansas University.


(Roy J Beckemeyer and Michael S Engel, 2011, “Upper Carboniferous insects from the Pottsville Formation of northern Alabama (Insecta: Ephemeropterida, Palaeodictyopterida, Odonatoptera)” Scientific Paper, University of Kansas Natural History Museum 44: 1-19)

I worked on this group of insect fossils not long after I had read Randal Keynes’ book, “Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter And Human Evolution” (Fourth Estate, London, 2001). He chronicles the interactions of Darwin’s family life and scientific work during the time he was formulating and documenting “The Origin of Species.” So the first insect described in this paper was named to recognize this all too often neglected aspect of Darwin’s life. The name we assigned was Anniedarwinia alabamensis. Here is our statement on the etymololgy of the genus name:

“The new genus-group name honors Charles Darwin’s humanity by remembering his second child and youngest daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Annie” Darwin (1841-1851). Darwin nursed his ten-year-old daughter through the final stages of her illness. Her death broke her father’s heart: ‘We have lost the joy of our household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now how deeply, how tenderly we do still…’ (Charles Darwin, 30 April, 1851: Keynes, 2001).”

Once again, I chose to use the state in which the fossil was found for the species name, and the result, Anniedarwinia alabamensis, again has a certain euphony that I particularly like; that, in addition to the emotional satisfaction of naming a species for Darwin’s child, make this one of my favorite scientific names.

I will stop with these two examples; I suspect you get the idea. It is so pleasant, when reading through the monotonously detailed descriptions that are required to validate and definitize a new species, to come across the etymology paragraph – and bask in a brief diversion into the human and artistic, a glowing moment of dalliance between science and literature.