What’s in a name

When I was doing research for my zooplankton coursework the other day and trying to find pictures of hydromedusa larvae, I came across a website which told the story of one scientist’s single-minded mission to meet Frank Zappa.

Italian biologist Ferdinando “Nando” Boero completed this noble quest through an admirably elaborate plan which involved taxonomically classifying a new species of jellyfish via his work at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, California; writing to Zappa explaining his desire to name the new jellyfish in his honour; and receiving a reply. Zappa’s reply included the rather charming sentence –

“There is nothing I’d like better than having a jellyfish named after me”

And thus followed a regular, friendly correspondence between the two. They often met up like old friends and visited each other’s houses, Boero once spending two days at Zappa’s house watching the composition of a version of ‘The Torture Never Stops’ (that one from Zoot Allures which I always think is by Tom Waits – oops). Perhaps best of all was the final concert of Zappa’s 1988 Tour, where he reworked a number of verses of ‘Lonesome Cowboy Burt’ in honour of Boero.

My name is Nando,
I’m a marine biologist.
All my friends,
They call me ‘Do’

(Hi Do!)

I like this story for a number of reasons. First off, I like Frank Zappa. Though his music isn’t quite to everyone’s tastes, you must admire his enormous body of work and proportionally huge contributions to prog and experimental rock. Additionally, from a young age and much to my mother’s dismay, my father instilled in me a great appreciation for the album artwork on Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Secondly, it’s a cute story. It’s fun and well meaning and heck, I like to think that one day I might get to go have tea ’round Bruce Springsteen’s house to show him the fish I’ve named after him.

But this definitely was not the first time I’ve stumbled across such a story. I can remember very clearly one of my lecturers in first year rather going off on a tangent about this – he was aggravated that scientists responsible for the first formal description of a holotype animal just couldn’t very well seem to take it seriously. Linnean biological nomenclature, he told us, is meant to follow a rather regimented pattern. The first part which indicates an organisms genus is more often than not a given, however the second was traditionally meant to be a supporting word indicating a prominent feature of the organism. He derided people who deviate from a sensible formula for the sake of naming organisms after themselves, or even more so after celebrities.

I have a couple of problems with this.

Within this lecture he noted the recent description of a crustacean named after Bob Marley, which by scrolling down on this frankly fantastic and rather enlightening Wikipedia article I can tell you is Gnathia marleyi. This is a tiny species of parasitic marine isopod (think ‘sea woodlouse’ and you’re there), which hails exclusively from shallow waters in the Caribbean Sea and the females of which have particularly enlarged fronto-lateral processes. Ergo – Marley.

G. marleyi is a nocturnal planktonic predator that loves jammin'.

G. marleyi is a nocturnal planktonic predator that loves jammin’. Photo credit.

Okay, it’s not exactly as immediately apparent as the ‘maximus’ in Elephus maximus (the Asian elephant, one of the largest living land animals and, you know, big) but there’s logic in there somewhere. It is relatively informative as to the morphology and distribution of the taxa.

But more so – it’s fun! It doesn’t do any harm! In fact, I think it rather does the opposite – this is the kind of thing that makes people curious about science, that chips away at the idea that science is an exclusive Boys Club for the enlightened academic. Give over – anyone can appreciate that a weird little crustacean’s cephalitic appendages (sort of) look like dreadlocks. I highly doubt anyone outside of a narrow field wouldotherwise a pay very much if any attention to the description of a new Isopod crustcean, but at least someone somewhere might click through that article and gain a small appreciation for marine biology, for science as a whole. It gives people an avenue, however small, into an area where previously there wouldn’t have been one. The article I just linked lists hundreds of these kinds of organisms – someone out there is going to stumble across a scientific area they never before showed the slightest interest in, all because they like tennis or think it’s kind of neat that someone named an extinct genus of Sperm whale after Herman Melville.

Just outside of this, though, is the similar practice of people naming things after themselves – by the time he formally described Phialella zappai, Boero had already named another species of jellyfish he had discovered after himself (Boeromedusa auricogonia). Though he admitted he got far less pleasure out of it in the long run than he did from the naming of P. zappai, we can all understand why he or anyone else did so in the first place.

I think as humans we all just want to have a legacy. We want to be remembered after we’re gone, which for scientists has an additional side which entails not simply being otherwise memorable, but contributing something of sufficient worth to a discussion that it is still relevant years down the line. Most of us can ever only aspire to that, can realistically dream only of throwing a few coins worth of ideas into the fountain of the scientific community and its body of knowledge as a whole. I think in the place of one, we default to the other – even if the species you’ve described is pretty boring, at least it’s got your name on it.

And maybe even if it is a ‘boring’ or not particularly noteworthy species, which isn’t referred to until years after your time by a tired student looking for a picture of a zooplankton for her undergraduate coursework – hey. It made someone smile.

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