February 20, 2005

Desperate entomologists

Mark Isaak's Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, which Bill Poser cited here last fall, made the NYT today. The article (by Henry Fountain) includes an interview with Neal Evenhuis, president of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, who is said to have personally named more than 500 species of insects. Evenhuis is fond of translingual puns, including the flies Pieza rhea, Pieza pi and Pieza deristans. (His bibliography suggests that he named the genus Pieza himself -- Evenhuis, N.L. 2002. "Pieza, a new genus of microbombyliids from the New World (Diptera: Mythicomyiidae)." Zootaxa 36, 28 p. -- no doubt with humor aforethought.) Evenhuis identifies Phthiria relativitae as his "personal favorite", and says

"It's not that I'm desperate. I just have this streak of levity. Not all names have to necessarily be kind of boring."

Still, I suspect that Linnaeus might raise an eyebrow. Not to speak of Willie Strunk, who would have red-penciled in the margin of that last sentence III.12, V-"kind of" and perhaps something about the infield fly rule.

The thing that caught my eye on Isaak's index page was the link to a 1999 paper in PNAS by John Alroy, which estimates that "24-31% of currently accepted names eventually will prove invalid", an estimate that is said to be "conservative compared with one obtained by using an older, more basic method". These proportions seem surprisingly high, but the result makes sense if the cost of a mistake is low compared to the benefit of identifying an otherwise unnamed species. Anyhow, I like to see a field that is able to discover its mistakes, and willing to admit them.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 20, 2005 07:59 AM