Taxonomists, myself included, are often asked how we choose names for the organisms we discover and describe. Some are surprised to learn that species are often named after people, but that is also inappropriate to name species after yourself (albeit I know of one such case*). Naming species and genera after people is in fact so common that taxonomists rarely pause to ponder who Welwitsch (Welwitschia), Scudder (Scudderia), or Wahlberg (Clonia wahlbergi, Aquila wahlbergi, Arthroleptis wahlbergi and more) might be or have been.
As I am sitting in front of my miscroscope, preparing a description of yet another African katydid of the genus Brinckiella, I realize that it never occurred to me to find out who Brinck was, the person after whom the genus was named in 1955. All I know is that he was one of the editors of a monumental, 15-tome treatment of the results of an expedition across southern Africa in 1950-1951. It was during this expedition that a single, tiny green katydid was collected, later to be named after its collector Brinckiella viridis by a French entomologist Lucien Chopard.
For some reason I assumed that Brinck, whoever he was, must be long dead – somebody who published a 15-tome treatise in the early 1950’s would have to be at least 120 by now, right? Well, yes and no. Professor Per Brinck has indeed died. But he only died two months ago, at the age of 94 in his home in Oland, Sweden. He was that country’s leading ecologist, one of the founders of the Nordic Foundation Oikos and editor of the journal Oikos. He was also a an expert on whirligig beetles (Gyrinidae) and dragonflies. He might have liked to receive a copy of my revision of the genus Brinckiella, which I published with my friend Corey Bazelet a few years ago. Alas, I never thought of it and now it’s too late.
An so, next time you run across an insect’s weird name that sounds like it might have been named after somebody, make an effort to find out who that person was. That – let’s pick a random patronym – Naskreckiella may bear the name of somebody very interesting, you just never know.
*) Wall’s krait (Bungarus walli), a highly venomous snake related to cobras, was named by Frank Wall, a British officer and a medical doctor working in India in the early 1900s. His paper is a delight to read, here is an excerpt where he justifies naming the species after himself:
“[…]At the Club in the afternoon I was pursued by an urchin who produced another specimen which, to my satisfaction, I found to exactly accord with the morning one, and after getting home while dressing for dinner the same boy brought me a third, identical in the peculiarities first noted. Thus in one day I acquired three specimens of a snake hitherto unknown ! I may mention that the day’s bag exceeded 100 snakes of all kinds ! These three Kraits were all small. Since this I have obtained 8 of the same species, and though I believe it a breach of ethics for any naturalist to call a species after himself, the fact that this is the first new snake I have discovered in 11.5 years’ hard collecting, may be pleaded as sufficient excuse for commemorating the event and attaching my own name to it.”
Wall, F. 1907. A new krait from Oudh (Bungarus walli). J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 17:155-157.