Professor calls for end to the name game

September 3, 1999

What's in a name? All too often little more than puerile humour and unpronounceable in-jokes, according to a Canadian professor of geology, who has issued a plea for taxonomic sanity.

William Sarjeant, a geologist at the University of Saskatchewan, is calling for the international bodies that regulate the naming of new species to enforce rules to stop a rash of bizarrely labelled animals, plants and microbes.

His irritation has been fuelled by such creatures as Montypythonoides, a prehistoric constrictor named after the BBC comedy series, and Overtonaspis billballi, a fossil fish dedicated to William Ball, an expert at the Natural History Museum.

These names stick to the Linnaean system of two Latinised words - the first for the organism's group or genus, the second for its species. "The number of these abortions is multiplying - some are just hideous words, others literally unpronounceable and the recommendations about the proper use of language have to be upgraded to strict rules to deal with this," said Sarjeant.

His campaign started among members of the Geological Society of London with an article in the Geoscientist and is now shifting to North America in a bid to put pressure on the regulatory bodies.

But many scientists argue that the most unusual names are the ones that stick in the memory, hence serving their purpose best.

David Martill, a palaeontologist at the University of Portsmouth, said: "What's wrong with having a bit of fun -- there have been lots of cases where people have named things either to cause amusement or to be a little bit rude and we should leave it alone and let people name things as they like."

There is no denying some creatures have baffling names, such as the primitive ankylosaurus that was given the tongue-twister name Jurassosaurus nedegoapeferkimorum, constructing the species name from the first letters of the surnames of Jurassic Park's stars.

The naming of new species is governed by five organisations for zoology, botany, virology, bacteriology and cultivated plants, which each have complex rules.

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