70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

By: Larry Oellermann, SAAMBR

The universally accepted convention of describing species using binomial nomenclature was popularised by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). Each organism is labelled with a double-barrel name; the first denotes the genus to which it belongs, whilst the second is specific to the organism. Early names were Latin descriptions of a defining feature of the species such as its colour, size, appearance, where it was found, etc. As the naming system became more commonly used, this convention was relaxed to include Latinised words, allowing for some unusual species names, both intentional and not.

For example, the taxonomists who came up with Agra vation (a beetle, named by Terry Erwin), Pieza deresistans, Pieza pi and Pieza kake (small flies, named by Neal Evenhuis) and the palindrome Orizabus subaziro (a scarab beetle named by Brett Ratcliffe) knew what they were doing. Was the naming of the moth Eubetia bigaulae (“You betcha, by golly”), the round fungus beetle Gelae belae (“Jelly belly”) and the South American wasp Pison eu (self-explanatory) intentional? I’d like to think so!

The formal naming of species has also been used to pay tribute to persons both real and imaginary. Hence we have examples such as the fossilised fly Carmenelectra shechisme (“Carmen Electra, she kiss me”; another Evenhuis example); the Australian arachnid Draculoides bramstokeri; the fossilised trilobite Han solo (unofficially named after a Star Wars character) and my son’s favourite: the sponge-like fungi Spongiforma squarepantsii.

The South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) also has its fair share of taxonomic celebrities. The founding President of the Association, Dr George Campbell, had a cardinal fish (Apogon campbelli) named after him by eminent South African ichthyologist Prof JLB Smith, in 1949. The species occurs in the western Indian Ocean, from Maputo all the way up to the Red Sea.

Not to be out done, Prof Margaret Mary Smith, founding Director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology (now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity) named three species of fish after another member of SAAMBR’s Council, Tony Thorpe. Tony was a lawyer with a passion for angling and marine conservation. He was an excellent amateur ichthyologist with outstanding observational skills, which he used to identify new and incorrectly described species along the KwaZulu Natal coast. He was equally at home in angling and scientific circles; and for his support of SAAMBR, the JLB Smith Institute and marine science in general, his name was immortalised in the scientific names of the nohorn unicorn fish (Naso thorpei, described in 1966) the squaretailed kob (Argyrosomus thorpei, in 1977), and the big-eye stumpnose (Rhabdosargus thorpei, in 1979).

Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI, a division of SAAMBR) scientist John Wallace joined the organisation to work on the taxonomy and biology of east coast batoid fishes (skates, rays, sawfishes and sandsharks) in 1958. In acknowledgement of the founding Director of SAAMBR’s (Dr David Davies) support of the batoid fish programme, John named the deepwater stingray Urotrygon daviesi after him. John’s research on the batoid fishes, and later on the biology and ecology of the estuarine fishes of the east coast, resulted in at least two new species being named after him; a conger eel Rhechias wallacei (by PHJ Castle in 1968) and the blancmange skate Raja wallacei (by Butch Hulley in 1970). John went on to become the Deputy Director of the Association.

Another Deputy Director to be honoured in this manner was Prof Mike Schleyer, founder and leader of ORI’s coral reef research programme until retirement.  His work in the western Indian Ocean on coral communities was recognised by Yehuda Benayahu, who named a species of east coast soft coral, Sinularia schleyeri, after him in 1993.

The organisation’s first director was a leading shark researcher, and sharks were the focus of early research at ORI. Nat Kistnasamy, who started off as Dr Davies’ assistant in 1962, was to become a shark expert in his own right during his 40-year career at the Institute. Brett Human and Len Compagno paid tribute to Nat’s contribution to shark research along the east coast of South Africa by naming a species that he discovered, the Natal shyshark Haploblepharus kistnasamyi, after him in 2006. 

Prof Rudy van der Elst, well known fisheries scientist in the Western Indian Ocean and retired Director of ORI, had a rather unusual organism named after him: a tape worm! Rudy discovered the worm in the intestine of a stone bream (Neoscorpis lithophilus) he was dissecting. Enenterum elsti was subsequently described as a new species by Rodney Bray, in 1978.

Another one of ORI’s fisheries experts has a deep-water crab named after him. ORI’s current Deputy Director Prof Sean Fennessy has been monitoring the by-catch of the KwaZulu-Natal prawn trawl fishery since 1989; he preserves specimens brought to the surface that he does not recognise and sends them off to various taxonomic experts for identification. New species are occasionally described from these samples, such as the large deep water spider crab Pleistacantha ori, named for the institute by Shane Ahyong and Peter Ng in 2007.

Sean was honoured by having one of the undescribed species of crab he’d collected named after him, by Peter Ng and Peter Davie. The species does not yet have a common name, but its scientific name Platepistoma seani can be translated as “Sean’s flat-mouth crab”. Based on the appearance of the crab, a more appropriate common name would be “Sean’s teddy-bear crab”… a name that is certainly more appealing to its discoverer!