What’s in a (scientific) name?

An unfortunate part of being human is that the one thing you are stuck with from the moment of your birth -your name- is something that you absolutely had no say over. For most of us, our first names were chosen by family members and surnames determined based on the lottery of birth. Yet, if we were to ask any of the individuals involved in the naming process the reason behind a particular name, they would be able to offer an explanation.

This is pretty much the case for all other species on the planet. Most species have a two-part scientific name, which includes the genus name and the specific epithet. For instance, the scientific name of humans is Homo sapiens, where Homo is the name of the genus and sapiens is the specific epithet. No two species share the same scientific name, making it easier for scientists from different parts of the world to communicate accurately about a specific group of organisms. Just like with the names of individuals, much thought also goes into the naming of a species. While some name newly discovered organisms after loved ones, mentors, or even their idols, others use this as an opportunity to express their cheekiness. A notable example was Carl Linnaeus, the father of this binomial nomenclature system who sometimes named species after parts of human anatomy. For instance, the roadside tree Clitoria racemosa gets its name from the word “clitoris”, owing to the striking resemblance that the flowers of this tree bear to a certain part of the female anatomy.

The flowers of Clitoria racemosa which inspired Linnaeus.

Fast forward to over two hundred years from the time of Linnaeus, scientists around the world are still discovering and describing new species. In a recent case in Singapore, scientists from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) described a species of crab new to science and named it Harryplax severus. Sound familiar? Hint: It has to do with the children’s series that revolves around a boy wizard.

Harryplax severus was originally collected from the coral reef rubbles of Guam by Mr. Harry Conley, an ex US Marine in the late 1990’s. Following his death, this crab along with part of Mr. Conley’s collection was presented to Professor Peter Ng, a crustacean expert for further study. While many of the crabs in this collection were described, this particular specimen remained buried in the collections of the Museum till 2015 when it was re-examined by the crustacean curator, Dr. Mendoza. The latter determined that it was a new species and christened it Harryplax severus.

The top view of Harryplax severus. Photo reproduced with permission from Dr. Mendoza.

What’s all the fuss about this name? “Harryplax was chosen in order to honour Mr. Harry Conley, whose expeditions over the years have contributed greatly to the world of marine science. This name also plays a tribute to Harry Potter, as the researchers felt that the magical abilities of Harry, the titular character of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series are comparable to Mr. Conley’s ability to find rare and unique organisms.

The species name “severus” (meaning “rough” and “vigorous” in Latin) too serves as a tribute to a notorious character from the series, Professor Severus Snape. The ability of this crab to escape detection for over twenty years since its collection was likened to Snape’s ability to conceal an important secret in the children’s series. The researchers also felt that this name accurately described the grueling feat that it was to collect this crab.

As an educator who has to convey information to members of the public, I try to steer clear of scientific names. Oftentimes, the mere use of scientific names which are usually in Latin or are Latinised is enough to put people off. Yet, this language is a part of the long tradition of the scientific naming process. It is always a challenge to try to get people to be interested in an organism which does not have a common name. However, the clever usage of fictional characters in this instance has managed to bridge this gap.

By simply making the name relatable, the researchers have extended the outreach impact of this crab to a much wider audience. While the description of an organism new to science will undoubtedly make its way into a scientific publication which will (eventually) be read by scientists and students around the world, the choice of a relatable name here has also piqued the interest of many a layman. With both scientists and non-scientists alike sharing the post on the Museum’s Facebook page, more people have learnt about this new crab in the last 10 days than the entire time it has resided in Singapore. Of course, to an extent, this also has to do with the story about this new discovery being on Facebook, a platform that is far more accessible to the average person than a scientific journal.

After all, an important part of scientific communication with respect to conservation is to inform people about what is out there. If the unique name of a species can make it more relatable to non-scientists and inspire them to learn one or two fun facts about the organism, in my opinion, that is a win-win situation.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot of potential, it would seem.


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