ES: Joe, your latest book, Listed, is about the Endangered Species Act
and how it has played out, in some surprising and unexpected ways, for both us humans and animal species and trees in the years since it became law.
While reading Listed, I really enjoyed the names of some of the species. Have you ever been involved in naming a new species, and if so, how was that? If not, what are some of your favorite names—any that you find particularly evocative, funny, appealing, or just plain odd?
JR: I am currently working on describing a new species of snapping turtle from the Suwannee River in Florida and Georgia. We are struggling with the name. The genus is Macrochelys (roughly, “big turtle”; the alligator snapper is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world.) Its current species epithet is temminckii, named after a nineteenth-century Dutch zoologist. There are some wonderful herpetologists in the area who would deserve recognition, but in the end, I think I favor the turtle’s source: suwannensis. Macrochelys suwanneei. It has a nice sound, though I admit that I haven’t checked whether the gender of the epithet matches the genus yet.
ES: As both a wordsmith and a scientist, how do you relate to the terms for groups of animals, such as a den of lions, a murder of crows, a gaggle of geese? Do you enjoy them or use them? Is there a general feeling about such words among conservation biologists?
JR: Well, we don’t use them in polite society much—except for maybe a culture of bacteria. But I do love a good collective noun. How could you top a murder of crows?
I’ll add two to the list, which I think are neologisms. One is a constellation of spiders. And what do you call a group of biologists? A cell, of course. I have to thank the poet William Logan for that one.
ES: On the topic of nomenclature, as editors and readers know, there's often more than one way to spell the popular name of species. What standard reference do scientists use for species names? Is one commonly accepted for popular names?
JR: Different journals have different rules, but I doubt many of them worry too much about common names. I suspect that most American journals rely on Merriam-Webster (at least I, as an author, do). In my publications, I am comfortable with using several different common names for variety (European green crab, green crab, shore crab). This is acceptable, in part, because they are all pegged to a Latin binomial: Carcinus maenas, in this case.
The standard reference for animals is the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Its code is intended to ensure that any given animal taxon is known under one universally recognized scientific name. The call for just such a code dates back to the 1840s: Darwin was on the first committee, and Hugh Strickland drew up the first rules.
ES: Many of us remember the phrase “binomial nomenclature” from high school biology. How is Linnaeus’s system faring these days?
JR: If we had to do it again, I suspect that many biologists would use a system quite different from the one put together by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. His ideas were both radical and practical, organizing species into hierarchical groups from the species level all the way up to kingdoms. But for modern scientists, the idea of species is far more fluid. Species interbreed, they split, rejoin, and go extinct. Linnaeus and his contemporaries thought they were stable. Even the idea of kingdoms is under question, as microbes make up the vast majority of life on earth. (Linnaeus didn’t have the tools to see them.) Animals and plants are just a small branch on the evolutionary tree of life.
The evolutionary biologist John Avise suggests that at the very least we should put a time stamp on the Linnaean system. The genus Drosophila dates back more than 30 million years; our own genus, Homo, is very young, dating back only about 3 million years. We split hairs among our close relatives and tend to clump insects and plants. It’s probably too late to pack us into a new genus, with the rest of the great apes, but at least a time clip makes clear some of the biases inherent in the way we see the world and our own evolutionary history.
Joe Roman is a conservation biologist and researcher at the University of Vermont. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Audubon, Bon Appetit, and Harvard magazine. He is the author of Whale.