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Naming the Natural World 

By R. Jay Gangewere

Carnegie Museum of Natural History scientists identify new animals, plants and insects all over the world

Of all the scientists, the fossil hunters may have the most fun naming new species. Curator Mary Dawson of the museum’s Vertebrate Paleontology department recalls one punster naming a new species of primitive bear-dog… Daphoenus demilo. Say it slowly. Get it?

And curator David Berman tells of 19th-century fossil hunter David Baldwin spending solitary years prospecting for fossils in the New Mexican desert accompanied only by his faithful burro. An admiring colleague named a new species after him: Baldwinonus trux. In Latin onus means burro, and trux means trustworthy. The new species was "Baldwin’s faithful donkey."

An expert on moths, former Carnegie Museum of Natural History director William Holland once proposed what he believed was a new genus of wild silk moth as Carnegia mirabilis ("Amazing Carnegie")—but this 1896 name was challenged when the specimen Holland described was later identified with a previously named specimen of the genus from 1895. 

This shows there is a limit to how much fun you can have when scientifically describing all the life forms of the world, past and present. In fact, international commissions monitor the codes that apply to botany and zoology, and scientists take rigorous courses in describing species and assigning names (taxonomy). The framework for naming plants and animals is based on the Linnean binomial system of 250 years ago, which gives a genus name to the larger group, and species name to the members within it. It is a system that has the strength of "dead" languages: classical Latin and Greek. They cannot change, and they have international recognition.

"The world is a complicated place and natural history tries to bring order to chaos," says paleontologist Chris Beard. Like many others, he says that Carnegie Museum of Natural History has a great 20th century tradition in scientifically describing and classifying the forms of life. In the currently exciting field of early mammals research, he and Carnegie colleagues like Zhexi Luo and John Wible are at the frontiers of knowledge with their recent discoveries of new species.

In the life sciences, scientific names describe the endangered species. Some experts, like Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, predict that one-third to two-thirds of all species of plants and animals now living on land will be extinct by 2050. Raven sees these extinction levels rising fast because of human changes to the environment, and rivaling in scope the major mass extinctions of past geologic history. 

Scientific names must be used to describe agricultural and medical products, or in court cases and environmental rulings. Paleontologists use scientific names and classifications to piece together the ancient tree of life that shows how dinosaurs evolved into birds, and primitive mammals into human beings. 

While the average person uses a common name like "tent caterpillars" to explain which insect is eating the leaves of trees, entomologists and botanists go beyond that. They can tell you two distinct species that have become pests in Pennsylvania and advise on what to do about them. The "forest tent caterpillar" (Malacosoma disstria) eats a variety of trees including quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and red maple (Acer rubrum). The "eastern tent caterpillar" (Malacosoma americanum) feeds primarily on wild black cherry (Prunus serotina), and more rarely on other cherries, apples and crabapples. 

Today it is the "hot spots," the biodiversity hubs, that present a pressing need to identify new species, says curator of mammals John Wible. Areas of Central and South America, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, have been poorly or infrequently sampled. New mammals are rare finds, but they do occur. A new type of rabbit was found hanging for sale in a food market in Laos. A small goat-like mammal was discovered in Viet Nam in 1992, and was added to the list of some 4,600 known species of mammals. Carnegie mammalogist Tim McCarthy and colleague Luis Albuja recently described four new species of bats in Ecuador.

But in the worlds of insects and plants—which together make up 80 percent of all living things—the life sciences face an immediate challenge. Curator John Rawlins of Invertebrate Zoology estimates that seven to eleven million (some scientists speculate 40 million! ) new types of invertebrates still need to be scientifically described. Curator Frederick Utech of Botany estimates some 125,000 plant forms still remain to be classified and described. 

Discovering a Wading Beetle

On a July evening in 1982, high up on the Sierra del Sur in Mexico, John Rawlins saw what looked like a translucent blue spot shining beneath the stream of water that ran over a rock face. He had set up his lights and traps to attract a species of moth he was after, but as he waited for the moths to come, he inspected the spot more closely. The water running over the rock was a permanent environment, and beneath the water surface was a glowing beetle. This beetle lived under the constant flow by letting the water press it against the rock (it had its bubble of air to breathe from, as beetles do). But it could also rise up on its long legs and wade or run rapidly through the water. A good "general collector," Rawlins took a female specimen, which he brought back to Pittsburgh.

In 1985 this mysterious wading beetle was discussed with collection manager Robert Davidson, and he and Rawlins returned to the site in 1986, collecting 13 adults and larvae. After years of careful study of related species, a new genus and species was described (Rawlinsius papillatus) in the Annals of Carnegie Museum of Natural History (November,1998).

Davidson and museum research associate George Ball named it after Rawlins. One unspoken rule of taxonomy is that someone else has to apply your name to a new species—you can’t name it after yourself. Davidson remembers that he used to like having his own name attached to something new—until he discovered Hitler’s name applied to a new species by a German scientist in the World War II era, and his sense of fun diminished.

Nanotitans and Place Names

Chris Beard once described a small fossil rhinoceros by the generic name Nanotitan (very little titan) in a scientific journal, only to get a letter afterwards from an expert on codes in Cambridge, England. Beard was advised that the name was previously used (or "preoccupied," as taxonomists say). Nanotitan had already been published in Russian, in a Russian scientific journal in 1968, to describe a fossil cockroach found in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic. Beard came up with a new name Nanotitanops ("like" a Nanotitan). 

An organism’s structure or place of discovery is a common way to name or classify it. The scary-looking but harmless "Hellbender" in Western Pennsylvania is an example. John Wiens, assistant curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, explains that this large salamander found under rocks in local streams and rivers is called Cryptobranchus (for its "hidden gills") and allegheniensius (for the "Allegheny River"). 

The binomial system does not apply in the same way to archaeology. Curator James Richardson of Anthropology says a rule of thumb in his Peruvian research on ancient cultures is to use a geographic name, not a person’s name. He has named sites of the earliest human occupation in Peru after nearby canyons or mountain ranges. For a hundred years, Carnegie field archaeologists working in the Upper Ohio River region have been known for their discoveries and descriptions of prehistoric Indian cultures. The names are usually based on excavation sites and artifacts, such as arrowheads—like the Cresap projectile points found at the Adena burial mound.

An Evolving Science

Any classification system designed to include all life forms is likely to change. New hardware and software--tools and ideas--have opened new frontiers of information. Linneaus had the magnifying lens and microscope in the 18th century—a big advantage in tools over his predecessor in ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle. Charles Darwin came up with a theory of evolution in the 19th century that changed the way scientists see relationships among living things. Gregor Mendel discovered the genetic mechanisms by which one species can evolve from another. In the 20th century scientists use new tools for DNA analysis and computer-assisted modeling to study life forms. Only today could an ancient flying reptile, Quetzelcoatlus northropi, get its species name from the "Northrop" aviation corporation, which did the wind-tunnel analysis to determine how this creature flew. Dinosaur Hall has the first complete display of the animal in the world.

The new more rigorous world of classification demands sharper distinctions, and the invention of subspecies and subgenera, and re-classifications. Consider that all dogs are scientifically called Canis familiaris. This is because dogs naturally interbreed and produce offspring--the great test of one distinct animal species. But anyone who wants to talk about different "breeds" of dogs has to learn a whole terminology of words like terrier and collie invented for different types below the species class. In botany, the species of daylilies alone has 6,000 named and registered cultivars.

People reclassify information regularly in daily life without thinking about it. Botanist Sue Thompson teaches children about classification by having them put all their shoes in a pile, and then sort them out by color, size, girls’ versus boys’, or sport versus dress shoes. Non-scientists must deal with reclassified or reorganized items constantly—from the food on supermarket shelves to the clothes in their closets.

The scientifically classified collections are a priceless resource for 21st century to use in studying the plants and animals of the world. Each scientific name has a "type specimen"—the very first example of that organism upon which scientific knowledge of genus and species is built. At Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in the bird collections alone, ornithologists Clyde Todd and Ken Parkes described over 400 new species and variants. In entomology, the current staff has described hundreds of bugs and had 45 named after them. In Invertebrate Paleontology (which deals with fossil life such as clams and trilobites) about 160 new species have been named.

Natural history scientists are now identifying and classifying species in ways far more sophisticated than did the scientists of a century ago—an era when big-game hunter Theodore Roosevelt shot so many new animals in Africa that science awarded his name to two monkeys, a deer, a hartebeest, an antelope, a gazelle, a Duiker, a lion, a shrew, and a rat. 

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