Musings about life on Earth in all its aspects…

Category: paleontology

Konza Journal 2017 Issue Now Online

The 2017 issue of the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council annual publication, Konza Journal, is now online. I was fortunate to be asked by editors Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Ken Lassman to participate as a contributing editor and also as a featured photographer (photo essays on Birds, Insects, South Africa, the Changing Faces of Water, and Landscapes). Please check it out. Essays on Climate Change by Ken Lassman, the Cretaceous oceans of Kansas by Mike Everhart, poems by Annette Hope Billings, April Pameticky, Dennis Etzel, Jr.Victoria Sherry, and Janet Jenkins-Stotts, Olive Sullivan, and Kansas Poets Laureate Kevin Rabas, Denise Low, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Eric McHenry, and Wyatt Townley.  Videos by Stephen Locke, and a marvelous essay on language and sense of place as it relates to the prairie by Cindy Crosby.

There is so much more I can’t fit all the links here, so just go to the Konza Journal page, browse, and enjoy.

-Roy Beckemeyer, September 28, 2017

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 … 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.

You Say Ephemera, I Say Ephemeroptera

I have been fascinated by mayflies ever since I took a course in river ecology back in the 70’s and learned a bit about them and their biology.  Mayflies are aquatic insects, which means they live most of their lives in the water. 

Ephemera guttulata mayfly nymph small

Eventually the immature, water-dwelling  form (the nymph, which has gills and breathes underwater) hatches into a flying adult.  The adults live only a few days, and in fact have no functional mouth parts, so they cannot eat – they live just long enough to mate and they die soon afterwards.  Thus the scientific name for mayflies: insect order “Ephemeroptera,” which has the same Greek root as “ephemera” – literally, “for a day.” 

Because of this very short-lived adult stage, individuals of a given species of mayflies will tend to hatch nearly simultaneously and to emerge in huge swarms.  People who live near lakes or rivers with abundant mayfly populations often have to sweep mayflies off their porches.  These insects also mate in swarms, flying out over the water, mating in an aerial orgy, laying eggs and falling onto the surface of the water to die.  Needless to say, fish love this, and it is mayflies that fly fishermen often use as patterns for their artificial flies.

Ephemera guttulata mayfly

Adult mayflies have more or less triangular shaped front wings, very small hind wings, and two long filaments, called cerci, trailing from their abdomen.  They are not long distance fliers, but can hover and seem to dance over the water.  Their wings and manner of flying are fitted well to their fairy-tale lifestyle.

But these short-lived insects have been for around a long time – Protereisma directum is a mayfly ancestor that lived in the Permian (more than a quarter-billion years ago) of central Oklahoma.  Here is a photo of the fossil of the front wing of this species of fossil mayfly. 

P directum and penny

Back then, adult mayflies did have working mouthparts, so they might have lived longer than their descendents of today, but would still have been fairly short-lived.  Their front and hind wings were almost the same size and shape, so they likely could fly more slowly than today’s mayflies.  They did have those long filamentous cerci also. 

I find it endlessly ironic that insects like these, only hours in the air in their short lives, have flown year after year for hundreds of millions of years, reproducing and evolving and attaining their own kind of longevity, their own permanent sort of impermanence.  Here in this imprint of the wing of a tiny insect that flew for a only a few days 275 million years in the past, there is much for us to marvel at and ponder.  Ephemera, indeed!

– Roy Beckemeyer