Get ready for #ShelfLife Season 2 with a look at the first season. Episode 02 features a brief yet discerning history of scientific classification. 


Imaged mauled a bit for the purpose of tumblr posting; view them all in order here!

(Almost) Every cat in the felidae family! There are of course, always debates among taxonomists about which cat is in which subfamily, and whether subspecies actually deserve to be a species in of themselves. This is a simplification. Of course kitties here aren’t to scale and color tweaked/caricatured to give them more appeal.

As with almost everything I’ve been posting lately, I’ll be selling this as a poster at Ottawa Comiccon~


You know those little things that keep bread bags closed?  Well, the internet would like to tell you about them.  If you’re not doing anything too important right now, I think you should visit HORG (that’s the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group) and explore a beautiful, obsessive, hilarious taxonomy of occlupanids.

(ht Metafilter)

Moyer’s Pygmy Chameleon - Rhampholeon moyeri

This bizarre chameleon is Rhampholeon moyeri (Chamaeleonidae), a species whose populations are only known from two localities in the Udzungwa Mountains, southeast Tanzania.

The Moyer’s Pygmy Chameleon has a maximum total length of 64 mm. It is morphologically close to Rhampholeon uluguruensis, differing from it only by the number of the inter orbital scales and the arrangement of the hemipenial papillae. However, recent phylogenetic analyses confirm that both Rh. uluguruensis and Rh. moyeri are distinct lineages, the former from the Uluguru Mountains and the latter from the Udzungwa Mountains.  

References: [1] - [2] - [3]

Photo credit: ©Stephen Zozaya | Locality: Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania (2014)

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The Brain Scoop:
The Taxonomy of Candy

There’s a part in Carl Kaesuk Yoon’s book, Naming Nature, where she begins talking about the nature of classifying organisms. She gives the example of sodas: Coca Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Mr. Pibb, Sierra Mist, 7UP, etc. and asks, how would you group these beverages? Are Coca Cola and Pepsi synonymous groups, separate populations, or similar via convergent evolution? Are the dark-colored sodas in their own family relative to the clear sodas? Are citrus groups their own genera? I don’t know, but I can tell you I was super pumped about grouping and classifying everything in my pantry after that. 

So, I got in touch with a few taxonomists in the building and asked them if they’d be interested in helping with a video. They didn’t exactly know what they’d be asked to group, only that it’d be tasty. I’m so happy with how the interviews came out, as I expected everyone to have varying answers (and they did!) 

Want more on taxonomy? Check out What is a Species? !

In this lithograph print, German Biologist Ernst Haeckel depicts twelve species of hummingbirds. The only place where you can find all 328 species in the wild is the Americas. The taxonomic order bestowed upon the hummers by Linnaeus is a culmination of quaint myths that tie the hummer together with geographically estranged birds: the Egyptian plover and the wren. In the past, these two birds were thought to live life on the edge as crocodile teeth-cleaners - the myth of plover-crocodile symbiosis pervades today. When Europeans heard of the mystical hummers of the New World, an account emerged of the hummer joining the wren and the plover in this thrill-seeking employment. Ingellson then tops this lasagna of myths with a fine layer of cheese: hummingbirds were placed in the order Trochilidae, after Trochilus, the ancient Greek word for plover.

(1) print: Ernst Haeckel's 1899 collection Art Forms of Nature, Wikipedia Commons
(2) Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in Legend, Fables & Folklore (pre-1923)

Harlequin Toad - Atelopus spumarius barbotini

This is a toad endemic to the Central Massif of French Guiana. It can be easily distinguished from the other species of the Guianan region by its body color and the shape of its dorsal pattern. However, despite being very distinctive, the taxonomy of the species or subspecies is not fully resolved.

Formerly this toad was called Atelopus spumarius barbotini (Bufonidae), but it seems that populations of this form and another ones in the Atelopus spumarius group might be treated as a species complex, and it has not been cleared out how many and how they are related. 

Anyway, the species Atelopus spumarius, including its subspecies, is regarded as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

References: [1] - [2] - [3]

Photo credit: ©Henk Wallays | Locality: Panama (2008)

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In this episode of Shelf Lifewe’re talking turtles, taxonomy, and the tales a Museum collection can tell.


The Brain Scoop:
What is a Species?

When I was in high school, I learned that the definition of a species is two animals that can interbreed and give birth to fertile offspring. Like, dogs are all one species because they technically can interbreed (although, functionally, watching a Great Dane and a Chihuahua work it out might be… difficult), but donkeys and horses are different because – although they can mate and give birth – their offspring (mules) are sterile.

At the time, I thought – well, that’s pretty straight forward. Thanks, scientists, for solving yet another mystery of life. 

Fast forward to a few months ago when I asked one of my taxonomist colleagues to define a ‘species’ for me. The result of that (many hour-long) conversation inspired this video. Turns out, the answer isn’t, at all, straight-forward. 

Cephalopodoptera / Squid Moth

Finland-based artist Vladimir Stankovic has created an awesome series of animated illustrations of an entirely new class of organisms: CephalopodopteraThese beautiful creatures appear to be a combination of various mollusc (Octopuses and squid) and insect (Moths and beetles) species. What a wonderful discovery for the worlds of art and science alike!

“Cephalopodoptera is a newly discovered order of species, a link between molluscs and insects. They live in the deepest underwater caves of the oceans worldwide. With the characteristics and intelligence of moths, beetles, octopuses and squid, these animals have managed to remain hidden for centuries. As we speak, tests and experiments are being carried out in order to know more about these mysterious and elusive creatures…”

Visit Laughing Squid to view many more of Vladimir Stankovic’s shimmering and tentacular creatures.

A Not-So-Brief Lesson in Taxonomic Nomenclature

Listen up, aspiring and practicing scientists of Tumblr. I’m gonna asplain you a thing.

Everyone with a high-school education should be aware of some simple facts:

  • Life forms have been divided into groups of increasing similarity & relatedness:
  • (Domain)-Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species
  • This can be remembered with a simple mnemonic:
  • Delightfully-Kinky-People-Come-Over-For-Group-Sex

This view is simplified. You would not be expected to see anything more complicated without getting a degree in a biological field.

Let me explain some more of the more complicated intricacies:

  • Actually, there are also Super-, Sub- and Infra- groups of most of these classifications.

You are almost certainly familiar with some of the subgroups. For instance, ‘Crustacea’ is a Subphylum.

  • Sub-, super-, and infra- groups can be ignored without consequence, but do help us to organise and understand relationships.
  • These group are usually erected to deal with very complicated taxonomy that would be too simple under traditional separation.
  • When the specific levels are unclear (like when the evolutionary history is so complex that we can’t figure out where to draw the lines), the term 'Tribe’ is often used. This means very little until true groupings can be assigned, but helps us to organise a bit.

There are very strict rules governing how taxonomic names are composed, set out in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Most of these are too complex for me to get into, but at a simple level:

  • Family names always end in -idae (e.g. Iguanidae, Canidae, Felidae etc.)
  • Subfamily names always end in -inae (e.g. Boophinae, Mantellinae, etc.)

NB: The rules of Botanical Nomenclature are different! They follow the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants.

  • Plant family names always end in -aceae (e.g. Orchidaceae, Iridaceae, etc.)
  • Plant subfamily names always end in -oideae (e.g. Orchidoideae, Vanilloideae, etc.)

There are some rules about how these things are formatted.

  • All levels except species are always capitalised.

Species is never capitalised. Thus, Pan Troglodytes is wrong, while Pan troglodytes is right.

  • Genus and species are always italicised (note: no other levels are ever capitalised).

For instance, Ailurus fulgens is correct, while Ailurus fulgens is not.

  • Subgenus, when it exists, is always placed in brackets between genus and species. Subgenus is never treated as full genus - while you can call a species by Genus species or Genus (Subgenus) species, you can never call a species by Subgenus species.

So Boophis (Sahona) pauliani and Boophis pauliani are both correct, but Sahona pauliani is never correct.

  • After it has been given its full name once, a species may be referred to by an abbreviated form: the first letter of its genus, followed by its species name.

So I may now refer to Boophis pauliani  as B. pauliani. This is not completely necessary, and it is bad practice to insist upon always abbreviating after the first instance. A happy medium must be found, where the full name is brought in occasionally. This usually happens at the start of a sentence.

It should be noted that when working with several species from different genera which either have the same first initial (e.g. Boophis madagascariensis and Brookesia perarmata), or the same species name (e.g. Boophis madagascariensis and Phelsuma madagascariensis), abbreviation may not be the right way to go. Clarity is key.

Species names are usually one of three things:

  • A description of the species’ appearance or habits, usually using Latin, Greek, or other languages, but almost never English. (e.g. Brookesia superciliaris is a dwarf chameleon with well developed superciliary spines (above the eyes); Guibemantis tasifotsy is a frog with white spots on its sides - tasifotsy is a Malagasy word for white spots, tasy meaning spots, and fotsy meaning white).
  • A tribute to the location where the species is found (e.g. Phelsuma madagascariensis).
  • A tribute to a notable researcher/person/organisation. If dedicated to a single person, these names always end in -i (e.g. Phelsuma gouldi was named in honour of Steven Jay Gould, noted evolutionary biologist and popular scientist).

Bad taxonomists, such as the infamous Raymond T. Hoser, tend to name species in tribute to mundane things, like their children, friends, and pets. This practice is strongly frowned upon but not technically against the rules. However, you are never allowed to name a species after yourself.

Description tributes:

  • When quoting a species name, especially in works that actually deal with taxonomy, usually the authors who originally described that species are listed alongside the species.

For instance: Brookesia stumpffi Boettger, 1894

  • The date is not always necessary:

I could also just say Brookesia stumpffi Boettger.

  • This rule applies in the same way to higher levels of classification (so for example: genus Brookesia Gray, 1865).
  • If the species is no longer in the genus in which it was originally described (it has been moved from one to another), the name goes in brackets.

For example: Brookesia perarmata (Angel, 1933) was originally assigned to its own genus because it is so different from all other dwarf chameleons, but was later brought back into the genus Brookesia due to physical and genetic attributes.

Open Nomenclature:

When species are not easily distinguished based on physical or colour-based attributes, taxonomy gets a bit tricky. To get around this, there are several words that have been used for vague implications:

  • the abbreviation 'sp.’ refers to a species in a genus (e.g. Uroplatus sp.) that is either not yet described, or was not recognisable to the authors.
  • the abbreviation 'cf.’ refers to an individual or group of individuals that looked like a species, but whose identity is not 100% (e.g. Uroplatus cf. henkeli).
  • the abbreviation 'aff.’ refers to a species that is probably not yet described, but has certain aspects that suggest it is most closely related to a certain species (e.g. Uroplatus sp. aff. henkeli).

There are no set rules on how to use open nomenclature, so it’s a bit of a mess and is open to interpretations. Some people use 'cf.’ and 'aff.’ interchangeably. Suffice to say that, if it has one of these abbreviations in it, the taxonomy needs a bit of work.

Huge success.

Okay that is all for today’s lesson. I hope you learned some stuff. Sorry it was so long. Taxonomic nomenclature is complicated, but its intricacies are quite fun to wrap your head around.