When I was a boy, it was my luck to hang out with kids who devoured The Sporting News and could reel off batting averages of players from the majors to the Three-I League. As an adult, it has been my lot to find myself surrounded by botanists, zoologists and knowledgeable fishermen who derive considerable delight from reciting the scientific names of plants and animals. A largemouth bass is Micropterus salmoides, and when a mayfly hatch is on, knowing trout anglers speak of Ephemera guttulata as readily as my childhood friends talked of Joe DiMaggio.
I guess because I have spent so much time with people who rattle off these exotic terms, many of them stick in my mind like the names of certain TV newscasters. For years I have been trying to shake my memory free of Sander Vanocur. I haven't seen him on television for quite a long time, but his name just won't go away. It seems I am equally taken with the bilateral symmetry of Sander Vanocur and the binomial nomenclature established by an 18th century Swede, Carl von Linné, who in the spirit of things Latinized his name to Carolus Linnaeus.
The idea of using scientific names instead of common names, such as bass or mayfly, is to allow scientists anywhere in the world to identify species exactly and to place them in relationship to other forms of life. The right to name a species belongs to the person who first describes it in print. That sounds simple, but it is complicated by the fact that botany, bacteriology and zoology have separate codes for nomenclature. And in zoology there are disputes over who named what first. There is actually a periodical entitled Opinions and Declarations Rendered by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. As a kid I had no way of guessing that someday I would be more interested in it than in The Sporting News.
Scientific names ideally are supposed to be reasonably simple and descriptive. The striped skunk is Mephitis mephitis, which means "stink stink." Some scientific names even have come to be used as common names, among them hippopotamus and chrysanthemum. But despite the strictures, there are plenty of tongue twisters, including my favorite, Leucophthalmoechinogammarus crassus, a crustacean from Lake Baikal.
I have a friend, Dr. Dominick J. Pirone, who is the director of the environmental studies program at Manhattan College. Without using any reference books, he can identify and give the scientific names of 5,000 insects. And his expertise hardly stops there. When I first met Dom, we collected fish together. "Menidia menidia!" he would exclaim at the sight of a silversides. He was especially enamored of collecting near sewer outlets, and while I would gag, he would paw his way through strands of algae, giving them their Latin names as he went. Crowds would occasionally gather while Pirone was so joyously occupied, and inevitably an onlooker would step forward to ask Dom who he was and what he was doing. Dom would whip out his card, and there printed beneath his name was COLLECTOR OF WORLDWIDE ORTHOPTERA, ESPECIALLY THE PHASMATIDAE. Orthoptera is the order that includes roaches, grasshoppers, crickets and Phasmatidae, or walkingsticks, bizarre creatures that look like twigs with legs.
Dom, who is now 39, began soaking up scientific names at the age of three, under the tutelage of his Uncle Pat—Dr. P.P. Pirone, a recently retired plant pathologist at the New York Botanical Garden. Uncle Pat has a species of fungus named in his honor, and a horticulturist called a variety of cultivated tree "Pirone's ash," sudden mention of which always provokes gasps at ladies' garden clubs. There also is a worm, Lumbricus pironei, named in honor of the family. "Some years ago, my cousin Joe, who is now a psychology professor, and I were camping in a tent for a week near Kingston, N.Y.," says Don. "I was collecting a subspecies of butterfly called Lycaena phlaeas americana, the American copper. Joe was there chasing some girl. He was very sloppy—he's half Irish—and he would throw his underwear on the ground every night. When we got home, his mother dumped out his drawers to do the laundry, and there was a red, white and blue worm. His mother got scared, and his father thought Joe had become infected with some internal parasite and shipped the worm off to Cornell in alcohol. It turned out to be a new species of earthworm, and it was named for Joe."
I am an avid striped bass fisherman, and back in the 1960s, when I was doing research for a book on the Hudson River, I was shocked to learn from Dr. C. Lavett Smith of The American Museum of Natural History that the scientific name for the striper, Roccus saxatilis, had just been changed to Morone saxatilis. I was more than shocked; I was outraged. Roccus, dog Latin for rocks, was an appropriate name for striped bass, which like to hang around rocks. It was one scientific name that every surf caster knew by heart. The Salt Water Sportsman once ran an article with the headline WHAT MAKES ROCCUS RUN, and readers instantly knew what the article was about. Roccus was close to becoming like hippopotamus.
Dr. Smith told me that after exhaustive research some scientists had taken striped bass out of the genus Roccus and put it, along with kindred fish such as the white perch, in the genus Morone, because that was the name originally used for those fish ages ago. Therefore, Morone had priority under the rules of zoological nomenclature. And, Smith went on, the change to Morone had already been approved by the Committee on Names of Fishes, composed of members of the American Fisheries Society and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. He told me that if I wanted to protest this change I would have to write an elaborate brief for presentation to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which meets only once every five years. To put it bluntly, I didn't have a prayer. At least, I was not alone in my outrage. Susan Smith, a biologist and artist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote a poem entitled Taxonomic Tragedy, which reads in part:
Oh, Roccus saxatilis is a name we'll surely miss.
The culprit is, I'm sad to say, a taxonomic twist.
Yes, Morone's now the genus name
I never figured why,
But when that old name Roccus goes
I'm sure Tin going to cry.
Why, Roccus cracks right off the tongue!
Like speed and strength and size!
While Morone kind of rolls around
Then gives a sigh and dies.
In my book on the Hudson, I noted that Morone was now the generic name, although no one knew what Morone meant. I received a letter from a reader, Bert Kruse of Clear Lake, Iowa, who wrote, "You stated that no one knows what Morone means. Webster notes it's New Latin, meaning 'type genus.' "
I seized on this and wrote to Dr. Smith: "Does this mean we still have a chance of going back to Roccus since Morone is obviously a scientific term in itself and not really a generic? After all, Type Genus saxatilis is a bit stupid for the striper (or any fish)."
Dr. Smith replied: "In regard to this business of the derivation of Morone, I'm quite sure what your correspondent is referring to is the fact that Morone has been used as a type genus of a family of fishes, which, of course, is the Moronidae and which we are temporarily considering Percichthyidae.
"Jordan and Evermann, who looked into such matters, said the name is unexplained, and a casual perusal through some lexicons suggests it may have come from the same Greek word as our word moron, meaning stupid or foolish. There is also a possibility it is involved in the stem of the word mulberry, which is the genus Morns.
"All this is academic, however, because under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature it makes no difference what it means, and even if it meant type genus it would still be usable. Article 18 of the International Code states that 'a genus—or species-group name—once established cannot afterwards be rejected, even by its own author, because of inappropriateness.' As a matter of fact, they give the generic name of paddlefish as a horrible example—Polyodon means 'many teeth' and, of course, the paddlefish is toothless. So for the time being I think we're safe to stay with Morone."
I passed Smith's letter on to Kruse, and he replied: "I don't know about the paddlefish being a bad example because the young of Polyodon spathula have a great many teeth indeed and sharp ones."
Not toothless! I was speechless and let the matter rest.