The other day I began to notice something peculiar about the names of our studied organisms, or lack thereof. When asked “what are these?” in reference to the algae collected on that morning’s dive, I answered with a laundry list of scientific names that would frustrate the most avid scrabble player: Desmarestia menziesii, Plocamium cartilagineum, Iridaea cordata, Myriogramme smithii, Himantothallus grandifolius
If I were asked what animals I had seen in Antarctica, I certainly wouldn’t answer Megaptera novaeangliae, Hydrurga leptonyx, and Pygoscelis adeliae. Rather, I would say humpback whales, leopard seals, and Adelie penguins.
Why then is there a propensity to refer to certain organisms by their common name while others are known by their Latin moniker? My initial thoughts were that scientists, in an effort to confuse the masses with cryptic jargon only understood by other scientists, used Latin names in the context of scientific studies.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Other members of UAB’s biology department study red-eared sliders, mosquito fish, and Olive Ridley turtles but seldom talk about studying Trachemys scripta elegans, Gambusia affinis, or Lepidochelys olivacea.
Maybe it is an algae versus animal thing. All the aforementioned creatures with general names are animals while algae are left with names like Geminocarpus geminatus, Laminariocolax ekloniae, and Ascoseirophila violodora. Well, that is untrue as well. When I separate all the animals living on the algae, I am usually left with a large bucket of Oradarea bidentata, Gondogeneia antarctica, Metaleptamphous pectinatus and additional amphipods that (as far as I know) have no easy-to-pronounce identities.
I, then, thought that more commonly seen, and possibly charismatic, organisms had well established common names while others, like most algae and amphipods, were likely only to be referred to in Latin. I decided to test this theory by asking one of the other Antarctic scientist teams here at Palmer Station, the ‘buggers’ (entomologists), what they study. Their answer was the “Antarctic Midge”, Antarctica’s only true insect, and the “Seabird Tick”. What, not Belgica antarctica and Ixodes uriae, respectively?
How can that be? These critters are smaller than our most common amphipods, are not commonly known, nor are they charismatic. “Hey ma, can I have a pet Seabird Tick?” I think not, even people who have been to Antarctica many times are not aware of the existence of these minute animals. So, why do they get a common name while all our samples from the sea floor have names that rival terms in balderdash?
Finally, I decided that the reason we do not refer to our chosen organisms of study by common names is that they may not have one. Do they need one? Would a rose by any other name (Rosa canina), smell as sweet? YES!!!! If for no other reason than I am already sick of writing out names like Prostebbingia gracilis, Paraphimedia integricauda, and Echiniphimedia hodgsoni, much less having to apply the brakes and prepare my mouth for the challenge of proper enunciation of these plants and animals that I find myself surrounded with here in Antarctica.
That is why I have decided to end each of my journal entries with a few “nameless” organisms. If you can come up with a suitable ‘common’ name then please respond to the journal entry. Each week I will pick the best and will use it when discussing that particular organism in future journal entries. In a way, you may be naming a previously discovered creature native to Antarctica. So please be creative and help me give these guys a name!