Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

079: What's in a Name?

Last year I was diving under very marginal conditions and decided to poke around under the boulders of the rocky groin or mole at Casino Point. In a dark corner of a little cave I noticed a yellow glob of flesh that looked like it might be a nudibranch or shell-less snail. I turned on my video light and shot several sequences for later identification since I didn't remember seeing this species before. At home I pulled out my trusty Pacific Coast Nudibranchs reference nook and discovered it was Peltodoris ________. Now I'm used to obscure marine animals without a common name, but this species didn't even have a scientific species name since it was "undescribed" scientifically.

Many decades ago I discovered a fossil echinoderm in a drawer at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology that had never been scientifically described either. I was excited, thinking I would be the first to describe it and affix my name to it... perhaps Helicocaplacus bushingii. Being just an undergrad, Stephen J. Gould (my professor) sent the fossil to the world's leading authority at UC Berkeley and my chance for scientific "immortality" evaporated!

Speaking of names, while diving I was also able to observe Hymenamphiastera cyanocrypta, Aglaophenia struthionides, Thelepus crispus, Lithopoma undosa, Paralabrax nebulifer and Caulolatilus princeps! Have I lost you already? What if I said I saw a cobalt sponge, ostrich plume hydroid, terrebellid worm, wavy top snail, barred sand bass and an ocean whitefish? I'd still have lost several of you (the landlubbers).

You may have noticed that I rarely use scientific names in my column. Of course when I'm writing a scientific paper to be read by other marine biologists, it is necessary for precise communication. Each species has but one accepted scientific name, but may have many common names. This is especially true if a species is widespread and exists in waters adjacent to different countries and cultures. Each may call the same species by a different common name. Centrostephanus coronatus is called the black, crowned or Coronado sea urchin in different areas. The trumpetfish Aulostomus chinensis is the Nunu in Hawaii and the trumpeteno chino in Mexico.

Recently I sent an image collage of gorgonians (sea fans) to a dive buddy in Greece and asked her whether I'd be more likely to have found them at Sea Fan Grotto or Little Italian Gardens on the Island. Rather than responding with the obvious answer, Rania guessed wrong. Then she sent me a picture of what her Greek diver friends call a sea fan. It was what we call a feather duster worm!

Regardless of what we call it, both the scientific and the common names of species are labels humans have given them. No self-respecting garibaldi would call its mate Hypsypops rubicundus when "honey" will do. And just what do these human labels tell you about a species? For most people (including many scientists) nothing since they are usually Latin in origin or may include the name of the person who "discovered" them (tell that to the species they are eaten by... I think they "discovered" them long ago). When I used to teach biology at the old Toyon School in the 60's and 70's, I used a quote from Eluard that summed all this up: "a fish by any other name would still know the sea."

Does the name Paralabrax clathratus tell us anything significant about the calico or kelp bass? Can we tell it is a species that prefers structured habitats (kelp forests, rocky reefs), lives mostly at depths from 10-70 feet, and feeds on mid-water and bottom-dwelling marine life (fish, octopi, squid, crabs and shrimp). Now that's information I can use. Species names are human constructs, but tell us little or nothing about their ecological roles or niches.

I am often amused by the many birders who seem determined to amass long "life lists" of the species they have seen. It seems nothing more than the collector mentality applied to nature. Of course it is far better than those individuals who literally collect the species themselves for their personal zoos (unless their name is Noah!). An individual with a very long "life list" of birds may know their names and the characters that help identify them. However do they really know much about each species' role in the ecosystem they are part of? Certainly the best birders do.

A name is useful in communicating precisely what species we have seen. However, it is the ecological role of a species that really gives us the nuts and bolts of where that species fits in the ecosystems around us. That is why each column I write focuses on what a species eats, what eats it, what kind of habitats it prefers, and other truly useful information, and don't give the scientific name.

Even scientific names change as our taxonomic understanding of evolutionarily-related groups improves... or when a researcher decides that the fact one "species" has slightly longer fins than another and is different enough to give their name to! In fact some of the names in the first paragraph were surprises to me since they represent new names for species I thought I already "knew." Of course their ecological role hasn't changed!

The relatively new science of molecular biology is giving us new insights into the evolutionary history and relatedness of different species. In many areas it could revolutionize the way we humans categorize "different" species. There is research being conducted in Canada that may reclassify the many species of kelp into just a few. The visual and other differences which appear significant to us may prove meaningless in light of these new relationships at the genetic level. Some even talk of merging chimpanzees into our genus (Homo) based on our very close (98.4%) genetic similarities.

So, worry less about what name applies to the next fish you see (unless you need to determine the size or bag limit, or plan to write a scientific paper!). Spend your time finding out what its ecological role is, where it hangs out, what its stomach might have inside. Watch and observe it and its behavior. This applies both to no-take divers and fishing enthusiasts. After all, the name tells you nothing directly about the best bait to use, or the best location and depths to fish. You need to know the ecological role of your desired dinner so you can choose the right bait and place it where the fish are actually found.

© 2004 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

The undescribed nudibranch Peltodoris _________ (fill in the blank) just
waiting for some scientist to describe and give it a name... any takers?

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia