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Posts Tagged ‘scientific names’

Autumn colours IV

Superstorm Sandy, or whatever we’re calling it now, didn’t quite make it to my neck of the woods, but did send us nearly a week of wind and rain. Even though most of the trees had lost their leaves completely before the bad weather hit, the change resulting from the storm is incredible. It suddenly feels more like the beginning of winter than the end of summer. The mulberry trees (Morus alba, the invasive counterpart to the rare native red mulberry and the same plant that silkworms feed on), which had kept their bright foliage til now, are almost completely stripped, with just a few clumps of yellow leaves withstanding the wind. These leaves can be simple serrated ovals or almost maple-like and lobed.

An interesting note about the naming of trees: many Latin names for trees are feminine but have first declension (i.e. typically masculine) endings. Morus alba looks like it should actually be Morus albus. I’ve never learned the reason for this masculine/feminine superposition.

Mulberries are also dioecious—they have separate male and female plants—and the females bear juicy, black berries in early summer, attracting a ton of birds and leaving purple stains on the ground. The two large mulberries in my yard are popular with winter birds, too, because they’re the closest large trees to my neighbour’s bird feeder. Here is a mourning dove hunkered down in one on the worst day of the storm:

On the first sunny day after the rainy streak, I went back into the woods and flushed a woodcock (Scolopax minor), an unexpected sight (and sound! Their wings whistle!) here. While I used to see them in this area when I was younger, their woodland habitat has been decimated, and I suspect this bird was just stopping by on its migration. Part of me hopes, though, that it’s a resident that’ll breed here next year.

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My dear friend and colleague at Alien Plantation has a post up about the frustrations of vernacular names: when people call the same organism by different terms, or mean different organisms when using a particular name. And one classic example of this frustration, one that I seem to find myself explaining often, is yams versus sweet potatoes.

What’s the difference, you ask?

The orangey (but sometimes yellow or purple) root vegetable that you may have eaten topped with marshmallows, or nibbled in french fry form at a pub with that not particularly good but ubiquitous “chipotle mayo”, is called “sweet potato” in most places, but also “yam” in many parts of North America. (Including where I grew up, so, for the record, I call them yams.) This yam/sweet potato is properly called Ipomoea batatas. (Ipomoea is usually pronounced “eye-poe-MEE-ah”.) Also in the genus Ipomoea are the morning glories, those vines with wide, trumpet-shaped flowers in many gardens and roadsides.

There is another root vegetable commonly called “yam” in English that’s a dietary staple in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These yams belong to several species in the genus Dioscorea, distant relatives of arrowroot. Like Ipomoea tubers, Dioscorea tubers can range in colour from yellowish to purple, but they (at least the cultivated varieties) tend to be much larger and have a thicker, rougher skin. Also like Ipomoea, Dioscorea species are usually vines. However, they have tiny, inconspicuous flowers, often arranged on an inflorescence or flower stem.

Dioscorea and Ipomoea may have some superficial similarities, but they’re only distantly related. One of the fundamental divisions among flowering plants is that between monocots (including grasses, palms, lilies, and onions) and dicots (including most non-coniferous trees, roses, and sunflowers); Dioscorea is a monocot while Ipomoea is a dicot.

If you’re in North America (and if you have the yam/sweet potato problem you almost certainly are), unless you’re at a particularly fancy/”exotic”/”ethnic” grocery store*, anything labelled “yam” or “sweet potato” is almost certainly Ipomoea batatas. (I have seen different varieties of the plant sold as “yam” and “sweet potato” right next to each other in the same store!) So if someone asks you if they’re eating yam fries or sweet potato fries, the answer is “yes”. If you’re at an African or Asian restaurant, though, there may be Dioscorea yams in your meal. One of the more common varieties, ube (Dioscorea alata), is used in the Filipino dessert halo-halo. (Sweet potato rolls and tempura at sushi restaurants in North America are Ipomoea.)

Wikipedia tells me that there’s another tuber, that of Oxalis tuberosa, native to the Andes but also grown elsewhere, that’s called “yam” in New Zealand. The local variety of Ipomoea batatas there is called kumara, so you shouldn’t have too many problems.

Here I present, in convenient, printable, wallet-sized form, a brief guide to yams and sweet potatoes:

*Stop the presses! After I finished the draft of this post I went grocery shopping, and lo and behold there were Dioscorea tubers.

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(Replacing Pantydraco)

Via this talk about dinosaurs, we learn of the radiolarian Rectotormentum fornicatum, named, of course, from the Latin words “rectus”, meaning “correct, in good order”; “tormentum”, meaning “missile stone”; and “fornicatus”, meaning “arched, vaulted”.

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ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of you who never had a childhood dinosaur obsession, or a dinosaur-obsessed child, Pachycephalosaurus was a “dome-headed” dinosaur: it and its relatives had extremely thick (like, ten inches) skulls, often dome-shaped and fringed with an array of spikes and other protrusions. It is thought—but the idea is controversial—that these dinosaurs engaged in head-butting fights like male goats and sheep do today with their horns. (An alternative is that they head-butted their opponent’s sides, rather than engaging in extremely risky head-on fights.)

A new analysis of a Pachycephalosaurus skull has found evidence of a healed injury or injuries from such a battle. The top of the animal’s cranial dome has two large depressions—and by large, I mean 5 cm across and up to 1.6 cm deep—in addition to a scattering of smaller pits concentrated towards the front end of the skull. The shape of these scars led the authors to rule out postmortem damage by erosion or scavengers as causes. Instead, they believe the dinosaur sustained a skull fracture—and survived, but with a nasty infection. A CT scan showed evidence that the wound had at least partly healed before the animal died.

While there are no modern analogues for skull-bashing dinosaurs, the authors compared the fracture to those sustained by birds flying into windows. They were able to find skeletons of some birds that had survived such a trauma long enough to heal, and they did indeed have large, round depressions on their skulls (though, from the figure, there don’t seem to be any smaller pits—perhaps the bird’s wound wasn’t infected, or perhaps the pits could be attributed to the spikes and nobs also found on Pachycephalosaurus‘s skull).

The authors note that many instances of apparent damage on pachycephalosaur skull fossils have been dismissed as erosion, and that a closer look at many specimens could show similar examples of healed wounds. While such injuries wouldn’t prove whether these dinosaurs were head-butting each other, or just hitting head-to-flank, or for that matter running into things, they would suggest that those thick skulls weren’t just for show.

I note with interest the names of two other pachycephalosaurs mentioned in this study (which may actually be juvenile Pachycephalosaurus, and thus not validly named, unfortunately): Stygimoloch spinifer (the horned devil from the Styx) and Dracorex hogwartsia (the dragon king of Hogwarts).

Peterson, J., & Vittore, C. (2012). Cranial Pathologies in a Specimen of Pachycephalosaurus PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036227

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Have I accumulated enough taxonomy-related links for another roundup? Am I too exhausted/lazy from field work to do any proper blogging? Yes and yes.

First, and most importantly, the NCSU Insect Museum has announced the winners of its awesome annual Hexapod Haiku contest. My favourite among the runners-up:

all the insects
I’ve killed–waiting
in the other world

The new species in this instalment are a UV-reflecting scorpion, a monstrous fossil that may or may not be called Godzillus, and a shockingly purple crab.

A short collection of goofy scientific names. I don’t understand why so few people want to do taxonomy. Think of the power you’d have, naming tiny primitive insects after Tolkien characters!

Random, related thought: describing a new species is like developing a DnD character. Except that you’ve lost your set of dice and your Player’s Handbook. (Actually, I think someone’s already indirectly made this parallel, viz. the Phylo, formerly Phylomon, card game.)

I’ve saved the best for last. This list of dinosaurs that “aren’t what they were” is frakking great. When I was just starting to be obsessed with dinosaurs, the idea that they were warm-blooded and related to birds was just becoming widely accepted. My childhood collection of dinosaur books was thus a mixture of those with illustrations of plodding stupid heavy-tailed brutes and those with lean and nimble, even graceful, beasts. But by the time I was in high school, things had changed even more: people had found fossil feathers. A lot of them. Now virtually every theropod (the predatory dinosaurs from which birds evolved), and even many non-theropods, is illustrated with at least a proto-feathery covering. The quill-like things on Psittacosaurus and Triceratops are pretty wicked. (A funny thing to note is that the Jurassic Park movies have always tended to be ahead of the mainstream idea of dinosaurs, first with the warm-bloodedness, then with the feathers and badass Spinosaurus.)

Okay, one more link, because the last one reminded me of it: T. rex trying, my favourite thing on the internet these days.

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(or at least the first to make headlines; I don’t actually pay that close attention)

The world’s smallest frogs—in fact, the world’s smallest vertebrates—are two newly described species from New Guinea, Paedophryne amauensis and P. swiftorum. What makes them particularly cool is that they are terrestrial, while the previous holders of the smallest vertebrate title were fish. It was thought that aquatic vertebrates could reach smaller size extremes because of buoyancy-related release from constraints. Apparently this is not so. Here’s the original article describing these two species and one of many media accounts.

Not a new species, but a new discovery about a known species: a Brazilian plant called Philcoxia minensis turns out to be carnivorous. It is unique in that it has underground leaves in addition to its normal leaves that capture and digest small nematode worms.

In cutesy scientific name news, just in time for the arrival of a certain baby of famous parents, entomologists named a species of horsefly Scaptia beyonceae, because its shiny golden abdomen is, as we like to say in the technical literature, “bootylicious”.

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Pantydraco.

Oh of course, “Panty” like the Welsh quarry. I believe you. (“I’ll find a dragon in *your* quarry, if you know what I mean.”)

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