A Fly Called Iyaiyai

And other true stories of scientific name-calling

Neal Evenhuis takes it rather well when a reporter phones his office at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and asks, What were you thinking? Some of the scientific names he’s invented . . . . Well, . . . Did he do those things on purpose?

The roseate spoonbill, Ajaia ajaja, did not get its name from a cat pawing a keyboard. A 1648 report of the bird in Brazil gave the Tupi people’s name for it as ajaja, and the later binomial system essentially doubled it. PhotoDisc

The cactus genus Hatiora got its name as an anagram of the cactus genus Hariota. M. E. Eaton/Smithsonian Institution

This fly (shown without wings to reveal body patterns) in the genus Phthiria drove Neal Evenhuis to consider giving it the name Phthiria gravitae. Evenhuis

The big feet of this Agra beetle inspired its Smithsonian discoverer to give it the species name sasquatch. George Venable/Smithsonian

Most of the time, Evenhuis comes across as an eminent, sane scientist. He’s spent years mapping out the family trees and describing new species of flies, and he’s published such landmark works as a catalog of 5,100 fossil species. He’s officially named more than 300 kinds of flies, and most of the terms sound respectably unintelligible to the uninitiated. Several hours before fielding the phone call about his intentions, Evenhuis heard that he had been elected to the international commission overseeing scientific names for all of zoology.

So, what did the accomplished taxonomist have in mind when he chose Dissop as the name for a genus of a hard-to-see fossil with the species name irae? Disap-pear-ee?

And what about the genus called Iyaiyai, as in the lamenting trills of a mariachi song or the cry that goes with thumping a hand against one’s forehead?

Evenhuis has committed other merriments, too, and, yes, he says he intended all of them. Although he practices world-class systematics, he advocates lightening up every once in a while. What’s more, he’s not alone.

Despite the precision of this science–these people know how many hairs grow on a fly’s legs and how to say white nine ways in Latin–taxonomists preserve a tradition of sly wordplay. Evenhuis rattles off two Web addresses, in addition to his own, that document whimsical nomenclature.

Some names just sound funny: Zaa, Mops mops, Bla nini, and Awuka spazzola. Some names evoke celebrities, from Ludwig van Beethoven and Arthur Conan Doyle to Frank Zappa and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and some make eye-crossingly awful puns.

Some, including many created by renowned scientists, get so rambunctious that they can’t appear in a family magazine, and the humor behind others is hard to classify. Fly specialist David McAlpine of the Australian Museum in Sydney, for example, named a genus This. A picture of one of its species hangs on his office door with the instruction, “Look at This!”

To show how a taxonomist can end up doing something as odd as that, Evenhuis describes his first excursion on the wild side of nomenclature. It all started, he says, when he fell in with a bunch of wry entomologists.

Champions of taxonomy

In the early 1980s, Evenhuis once or twice a year visited the Smithsonian Institution’s superb collection of flies in Washington, D.C. Before the workday started, resident entomologists and their guests swarmed around coffee in one of the labs. “I was in awe in the midst of such champions of taxonomy,” Evenhuis remembers.

During the start-up caffeination, Evenhuis learned about the species Verae peculya and Heerz lukenatcha. At the Smithsonian, Arnold Menke had added the new species name eyvae, pronounced “eye-vee,” to the genus Pison, and beetle maven Terry Erwin had enlarged the genus Agra with the species phobia and vation. All comply with at least the letter of the law of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and had been accepted as valid arthropod species names.

“I came away from those morning coffees knowing that I just had to find a name to compete and be accepted into that club,” Evenhuis recalls.

At that time, Evenhuis was studying a group of so-called bee flies and had found several new species, most in the genus Phthiria. He recalls, “I thought to myself, ‘What species name would go well with a genus like that?'”

Evenhuis was then, and still is, sticking to the tradition of two-word names established in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus, who actually came up with some doosies himself. The Swedish botanist-physician arranged the living world in categories that branched into smaller ones, which likewise branched repeatedly. In the last of Linnaeus’ branchings, the so-called genera split into the most basic identification of organisms, the species.

“Most names are descriptive, and a big chunk of the rest of them are honorific,” explains bee specialist Doug Yanega of the University of California, Riverside. Even within those categories, though, there’s room for inventiveness.

In creating descriptive names for some species, Linnaeus “was a prurient guy,” opines Yanega, who created one of the online collections of nomenclaturial high jinks. Linnaeus noted similarities between plant parts and human anatomy when he named the pink-flowered butterfly pea Clitoria mariana and a stinkhorn species Phallus. The species name impudicus means shameless. “If anything, we’ve toned down since then,” Yanega says.

Even a G-rated description can go too far. In the 1920s, amphipod researcher Benedykt Dybowski crowded so many descriptors together that his names stretched out for several dozen letters. Yanega translates Dybowski’s polysyllabic horror Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis as “amphipod with hollow spines on its skin from Lake Baikal.” Although the names did follow the rules, the commission finally decreed all Dybowski’s names invalid because they proved so unwieldy.

Names that honor someone, real or imaginary, can still offer a little indirect description. Erwin named one of his legion of tropical beetles Pericompsus bilbo after the hero of The Hobbit (1937, J.R. Tolkien, G. Allen and Unwin). The name fits, he said, because the beetle is short, fat, and has hairy feet.

Both a fish and a tineid moth with fake headlike color patterns near the tail take their species name, beeblebroxi, from the intergalactic gadabout Zaphod Beeblebrox, who had two heads, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1980, Douglas Adams, Harmony Books).

The bulk of honorary names commemorate the people who collected a vital specimen, mentored the describer, or otherwise earned the namer’s affection. Two taxonomists named a moth species bruneiregalis after the Royal Brunei Airlines. Lichen taxonomist William R. Buck named a species yahriqe in honor of a graduate student who made a special 7-hour trip back to the field site to collect enough of the new species for the description.

The late Smithsonian scientist Harrison Dyar named a moth species wellesca after the woman he married in 1906. Perhaps it helped atone for his failure at the time to divorce his first wife, Zella, whose name he gave to another insect species in 1927. Evenhuis adds that the amateur entomologist B. Neumogen probably intended no insult when he named the insect genus Dyaria, pronounced with “ee-ay” at the end, after Dyar himself.

Other names were almost certainly intended as slights. Linnaeus coined Commelina after three members of the Dutch family Commelin, two of whom had prospered. The flowers unfold three petals, two large ones a pure sky blue and a third petal that’s tiny, pale, and shriveled. The taxonomists who commemorated Heny Townes with Townesilitus were supposedly thinking pathologically.

Intent can be hard to determine though. Evenhuis defends as a clear compliment a fellow entomologist’s decision to honor Gary Larson with the new species of owl louse Strigiphilus garylarsoni. And when John Stocker, the former leader of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, learned that he had been honored with Telanepsia stockeri, the name given to a moth that eats koala dung, he issued a thank you of remarkable sportsmanship. Stocker welcomed association with “the celebrated Australian” and dismissed the excremental environment as just a familiar state for a public servant.

Too far-fetched

When Evenhuis confronted the nomenclature possibilities for his bee fly, he focused on the pronunciation of Phthiria, or “theory-a.” He toyed with the idea of Phthiria gravitae but decided the name really was too far-fetched.

However, he remembers, ” I could justify the etymology of the species name for relativitae by breaking it down to its Latin roots–’relating to life’.” He decided in the early 1980s to name the species “in honor of life on Earth.”

The international rules require that a taxonomist validate a new name by presenting it and certain basic information about the new species in a publication that will be available in public institutions. At the time Evenhuis was naming Phthiria relativitae, the voluntary code of behavior in the nomenclature rules disparaged humorous names, so he realized that a vigilant journal might reject his choice.

In fact, one of Evenhuis’ colleagues, Lee Goff, had just had a paper rejected by the Journal of Medical Entomology because he proposed naming a new chigger Trombicula tgifi. Goff next submitted his work to a Belgian journal, which did publish it. Goff suspected that the European reviewers hadn’t recognized the American end-of-the-week expletive, TGIF.

Goff’s maneuver inspired Evenhuis to submit his Phthiria paper to the Polish entomological journal Polskie Pismo Entomologizne. “I thought it would be a miracle if anyone in the journal’s editorial department would pronounce the name as we would in English,” he says.

In the same paper, Evenhuis described the bee flies Oligodranes humbug and Oligodranes zzyzxensis. Those didn’t worry him because he attributed them to California geography, Humbug Creek, and Zzyzx Springs, respectively.

Knowingly or not, the journal published his whimsies in 1984. “I was in heaven,” Evenhuis says.

But his triumph proved short-lived. In 1986, Evenhuis reanalyzed the bee-fly group and found that relativitae fits into a different genus. “Science should always be progressing,” he intones, but progress had transformed his carefully crafted name into Poecilognathus relativitae. “I was crushed,” he notes.

Since then, he’s consoled himself by assigning a happy discovery, a fly family, the name Serendipitae, and his fly Villa manillae has fared better than the lip-synching pop namesakes. The nomenclature commission’s code of ethics no longer explicitly discourages humor that’s not likely to give offense.

Evenhuis has even grown philosophical about Phthiria. He advises, “Bottom line: If you try to be funny with names, be aware that someone with later science may confound your efforts. And that person may be yourself.”

Name Games

Ersatz classicism

Aegrotocatellus Adrain and Edgecombe, 1995 (trilobite). Literally “sick puppy.”

Amblyoproctus boondocksius Ratcliffe, 1988 (beetle).

Not one of the scarabs next door.

Eucritta melanolimnetes Clark, 1998 (fossil amphibian). Loosely “creature from the black lagoon.”

Chloridops regiskongi Hames and Olson, 1991 (Hawaiian finch). Described as “a real King Kong” before it went extinct.

Dorcus titanus titanus Boisduval, 1835 (stag beetle). Perhaps “titanic dork”?

Geoballus caputalbus Crabill, 1969 (millipede). Named after its collectors, George Ball and Donald Whitehead, a.k.a. “head-white.”

Stupidogobius Aurich, 1938 (fish).

Unhooked on phonics

Arfia Van Valen, 1965 (fossil hyaenodont resembling a dog).

Blaps Fabricius, 1775 (darkling beetle).

Boops Gronow, 1854 (porgy fish).

Cedusa medusa McAtee, 1924 (bug).

Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana Kearfoot, 1907 (olethreutid moths). And there are more.

Trombicula doremi and T. fasola Brennan and Beck, 1955 (chiggers).

Zyx Smit, 1953 (flea).


Aa Baker, 1940 (mollusk). First genus name alphabetically, so far.

Aaadonta Solem,1976 (snail). Second place in alphabet.

Aegilops Hall, 1850 (mollusk). Longest word with all letters in alphabetical order.

Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis Dybowski, 1926 (amphipod). The longest binomial, at least before it was internationally banned.

Honors list

Avalanchurus lennoni, Avalanchurus starri, and Struszia mccartneyi Edgecombe and Chatterton, 1993 (trilobites). Beatles turn into real arthropods.

Arcticalymene viciousi, A. rotteni, A. jonesi, A. cooki, and

A. matlocki Adrain and Edgecombe, 1997 (trilobites). Unexpected venue for The Sex Pistols.

Cuttysarkus Estes, 1964 (fossil lizard).

Jurassosaurus nedegoapeferkimorum Dong and Holden, 1992 (ankylosaur). One highly fragmented fossil honors “Jurassic Park” stars NEil, DErn, GOldblum, Attenborough, PEck, FERrero, Knight, Richards, and Mazzello.

Mozartella beethoveni Girault, 1926 (wasp).

Petula Clark, 1971 (tineid).

Polemistus chewbacca Menke, 1983 (wasp). Doesn’t need a “Star Wars” spaceship to fly, though.

Strigiphilus garylarsoni Clayton, 1989 (owl louse). Hard to think of any cartoonist who’s drawn more insects.

They really did this

Abra cadabra Eames and Wilkins 1957 (bivalve). Has been moved to another genus, alas, and now goes by Theora cadabra.

Apopyllus now Platnick and Shadab, 1984 (spider).

Ba humbugi Solem, 1983 (snail). From Mba island, Fiji.

Chrysops balzaphire Philip, 1955 (deer fly).

Dicrotendipes thanatogratus Epler, 1987 (midge). Yes, that second word really does mean Grateful Dead.

Gluteus minimus Davis and Semken, 1975 (fossil). No known relation to anybody’s maximus.

Heerz tooya Marsh, 1993 (wasp).

Kamera lens Woodcock, 1917 (protist).

La cucaracha Blesynski, 1966 (pyralid).

Lalapa lusa Pate, 1947 (tiphiid wasp).

Ochisme, Dolichisme, Marichisme, and Peggichisme Kirkaldy, 1904 (all hemiptera). That chis sounds like “kiss.”

Omyomymar Schauff, 1983 (mymarid wasp).

Oops Agassiz, 1846 (arachnid) and Germar, 1848 (beetle). Named before the interjection became popular, however.

Pison eu Menke, 1988 (sphecid).

Tabanus nippontucki Philip, 1942 (horse fly). Described during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Tabanus rhizonshine Philip, 1954 (horse fly).

Vini vidivici Steadman and Zariello, 1987 (parrot). Overly optimistic since the species recently went extinct.

Ytu brutus Spangler, 1980 (beetle).

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.