Thursday, 18 May 2017

A common name quiz

In my last blog post, I championed the use of common names of organisms, some of which are vividly descriptive [1]. For fun, I've compiled a list of common names of marine organisms that illustrate their beauty and would love to know your favourites (I've limited the list to organisms of marine coasts to reduce the huge number of potential examples).

To make the post into a quiz, the group to which each organism belongs is given at the end (in the order of the list of common names) and the illustration above gives a clue to four of them. All are in English, but those who speak other languages may like to compile their own list of favourites.

Here's the list:

Brown-lined paper bubble
Burnt hotdog 
Crimson pufflet   
Dead man's bootlaces
Flamingo tongue 
Hairy mushroom   
Immaculate damsel 
Landlady's wig 
Lond-spined sea scorpion 
Magnificent foxface  
Pepper dulse 
Prickly redfish 
Red rags 
Red-specked pimplet  
Sea gherkin  
Sea hedgehog  
Sea lemon   
Sea potato  
Spiny mudlark 
Trefoil muzzlet 
Warted corklet 
White-lipped castor bean 
Yellow Fiji leather 

sea cucumber
sea anemone
brown seaweed
brown seaweed
red seaweed
red seaweed
sea cucumber
red seaweed
sea anemone
sea cucumber
brown seaweed
sea slug
sea urchin
sea urchin
sea anemone
sea anemone

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Latin binomials and the beauty of common names

I first became fascinated by larval blackflies as an undergraduate: there was something about their structure, means of attachment to substrata in fast-flowing streams and rivers, and their ability to feed on particles carried by the current. I went on to study the distribution of larvae in moorland streams for my PhD under the inspiring supervision of Dr Lewis Davies at Durham and this led to my independent investigations on larval feeding. I then became interested in the biology of larvae inhabiting lake outlets after meeting Staffan Ulfstrand and the Rheo-Group at the University of Lund in Sweden. We carried out field work in Swedish Lapland and could only provide speculative answers as to why some species are found in huge numbers where rivers drain from lakes.

Blackflies is one common name in English for these insects and they are not to be confused with aphids that inhabit legumes, although they share the same name. You will note that I have also used one word, whereas in North America these insects are called Black Flies - or Buffalo Gnats, a reference to the hunched appearance of the thorax (see above). Having complete metamorphosis, the adults look very different to the larvae and also to the pupae, but the term black fly or blackfly applies to all three stages.

To overcome confusions in the use of common names, both within and between languages, Linnaeus proposed the universal adoption of the Latin binomial system of nomenclature, as in Homo sapiens, for example. This allows accurate identification that is worldwide and international bodies administer the rules of nomenclature [1,2] and act as final arbiters should there be disputes. Even after Latin binomial names become established, they can be changed. After my Swedish adventure, I began studying lake outlets in England, where one species of blackfly, named Simulium argyreatum (it doesn't have a common name to my knowledge), is found in such huge densities that larval masses look like the thick pile of carpets. A few years after I started looking at the biology of this fascinating animal, its name was changed to Simulium noelleri. This was after a careful examination of species described by an entomologist named Meigen, and following the rules of nomenclature [3] (if you would like to read more about nomenclature of these insects, or any other aspect of their biology, you should read Roger Crosskey's brilliant book The Natural History of Blackflies, see below).

The revision meant that my publications contain papers that use two different species names, yet they are the same species, and I became so identified with the larvae of S. noelleri (ex. S. argyreatum) that a cartoon was drawn of me as a larva of this species, complete with head fans and mouthparts instead of hair (see below). Those who chuckle at the humour are probably unaware of the name change.

The disadvantage of common names, compared to Latin binomials, is that there is no overall authority to oversee their use and there are a large number of names in many languages. However, they are more easily remembered. Thus, anglers identify blue-winged olives, but not Serratella ignita, and the common name applied to the adults is also applied to larvae, even though they are yet to have wings. Many who take part in the excellent programme of Riverfly monitoring [4], used to assess the condition of rivers in the UK, use common names rather than the Latin binomial, especially as not all Riverflies are identified to this taxonomic level.

Common names are not only easier to remember; they are also descriptive. For example, the fungus Amanita phalloides is better known as the Death Cap and Amanita  vivosa as the Detroying Angel – both are highly poisonous to humans. Many other species of organisms have been given splendid, almost poetic, names:    

Hare's ear (fungus)
Dryad's saddle (fungus)
Death's head hawk moth (moth)
Dusky brocade (moth)
Sooty gossamer-wing (butterfly)
California dog-face (butterfly)
Jack-go-to-bed-at noon (wild flower)
Smooth hawk's beard (wild flower)
Pied wagtail (bird)
Chestnut-headed flufftail (bird)

This is but a small selection from thousands of names that certainly stick in the memory of English speakers, but they mean little to those who use different languages and that's the problem that is solved by Latin binomials. There is richness in the common names though, even those that are very local, and they lend themselves to what Gosse described as the Romance of Natural History. I'm pleased that we continue to use them.

[3] Heide Zwick and R. W. Crosskey (1980) The taxonomy and nomenclature of the blackflies (Diptera: Simuliidae) described by J. W. Meigen. Aquatic Insects 2: 225-247.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Angels, Billy Graham and me

Like many teenagers, I went through phases of questioning my religious beliefs. Brought up as Christian, I attended the local Baptist Church with the rest of my extended family, but left when I found myself doubting some of the things that I heard and some of the behaviour that I saw. After leaving the congregation of the Baptist Church, I attended a Crusaders group and occasional meetings organised in a local theatre that were modelled on the large-scale rallies held by Billy Graham and other famous evangelists. These meetings encouraged me in my developing agnosticism, as the atmosphere was oppressively emotional and the message was all about being saved from something dreadful.

Having left Christian religious beliefs, I became opposed to those who wanted to talk to me about such matters. On one occasion, when I was away at University, a member of the Christian Union knocked on my door. I welcomed him into my room and was happy to chat about things in general, but not when he started to proselytise. That was a challenge that I couldn't resist, so I fired back with an attack on everything that he was saying to me. It is something that I now feel rather bad about but, at the time, I was pleased to be told that I was the nearest that my visitor had come to the Devil. His reaction reminded me of the warnings I had heard in the preaching of the evangelists.

Recently, I read Billy Graham's book about angels [1] and took a special interest as I have written about angels with bird wings [2,3], so familiar to us in paintings and sculptures. There is no evidence in The Holy Bible to support these images and Billy Graham confirms this (see below, upper); yet his book has a bird-winged angel on the cover (see below, lower). 

The book is an interesting read as it gives an insight into what angels mean to an evangelical Christian like Billy Graham. Here is a very small selection of quotes:

..angels are created spirit beings who can become visible when necessary. They can appear and disappear. They think, feel, will and display emotions.. ..the Bible teaches about them as oracles of God, who give divine or authoritative decisions and bring messages from God to men. To fulfill this function angels have not infrequently assumed visible human form..

..We must be aware that angels keep in close and vital contact with all that is happening on the earth. Their knowledge of earthly matters exceeds that of men. We must attest to their invisible presence and unceasing labors. Let us believe that they are here among us. They may not laugh or cry with us, but we do know they delight with us over every victory in our evangelistic endeavors.

The Bible seems to indicate that angels do not age, and never says that one was sick.. ..The holy angels will never die. some cases in the Old Testament God Himself appeared in human form as an angel.

The Bible.. ..teaches that angels are sexless.

The number of angels remains constant. For the obedient angels do not die. The fallen angels will suffer the final judgement at the time God finishes dealing with them. While we cannot be certain, some scholars estimate that as many as one third of the angels cast their lot with Satan when he mysteriously rebelled against his Creator.

Nothing in Scripture says that angels must eat to stay alive. But the Bible says that on certain occasions angels in human form did indeed eat.

While it is partly speculative, I believe that angels have the capacity to employ heavenly celestial music.. .. I think before we can understand the music of heaven we will have to go beyond our earthly concept of music. I think most earthly music will seem to us to have been in the "minor key" in comparison to what we are going to hear in heaven.

You must read the whole book to gain more information and also to experience the tone that is used. It is similar to the emotive language of a Billy Graham rally and, as we see from the quotation above, is "partly speculative". One of the most important statements in the book is this:

Satan often works by interjecting a question to raise doubts. It is deadly to doubt God's Word!

I take this to mean that we shouldn't question and that is difficult for me as my training as a scientist has questioning at its heart. In reading Billy Graham's book, I was reminded repeatedly about his constant concern about Satan's influence in the World and of our need to be saved. It took me back to my experience as an undergraduate student. 

By the way, I don't believe that angels exist. That does not mean that I disrespect those that do believe in angels; rather I regard it as being a matter of personal choice. Sorry, Billy.

[1] Billy Graham (1975) Angels: God's Secret Agents. London, Hodder & Stoughton.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wonderful first-hand observations of shore life

We can all learn from the observational skills and industry of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians. Equipped with hand lenses, microscopes, pens, pencils, paper and paints, they recorded what they saw and this formed the basis of the classification of organisms and the ecology and behaviour that was to follow. I hold them in very high regard, especially when it is now so easy to record an image, or access information. Yet I wonder whether we have lost some of the skills shown during the heyday of Natural History? Much of our information now comes from television and video programmes that have excitement engendered by Hollywood-style production values, "appropriate" music, and a charismatic presenter to front the whole package. We are just passengers, often receiving what we are told uncritically.

The enthusiasm, powers of observation, and skill in illustration of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians are exemplified by William Pennington Cocks (1791-1878), whose work is included in the Haddon Collection in the Horniman Museum [1]. Although Cocks was interested in a wide range of animals, the Collection contains the notes he made on sea anemones that were used by Philip Henry Gosse in the preparation of Actinologia Britannica, his book on the British sea anemones and corals. Here are some examples of the notes that he sent to Gosse:


In the first (above, upper), we have a water colour sketch of sea anemones attached to the under-surface of a rock. This gives little detail of the animals, although Cocks provides the name of the species in the heading, but we certainly have a feel for their location. Next (above, lower), there are several species of sea anemones, all painted in colour and with detail of their structure and their positioning. Several locations are given, including Gwyllyn Vase, a favourite site of Cocks on the shore near Falmouth and now known as Gyllyngvase. He also placed sea anemones into jars, or tumblers, of sea water to facilitate observation (below, excuse my thumb in the first picture) and the drawings show details of structure that would be very helpful to others working on the biology and classification of these animals. 


Cocks recognised the value of the microscope and this is emphasised in a note (below): "If you have not examined the tentacula microscopically I would recommend a campaign in that quarter – we know little or nothing of the anatomy of the actinias".

His study of the biology of sea anemones included their feeding and three examples are given below, complete with the examination of two fish that had been partially digested. The lowest illustration shows a sea anemone with stinging acontia discharged [2] – "the appearance of one of these irritable fellows a few moments after removal from natural quarters".


Cocks' interest in anatomy and diet is not surprising as he was trained as a surgeon and became well known in London for his medical illustrations. He had a gift for drawing and for painting in water colours, although he appears to have received no formal training (unlike Gosse, whose father was a miniaturist). This is what Tom Barnicoat writes in an article entitled "The Gilbert White of Falmouth" [3]:

Born in 1791, the son of a Devon surgeon, Cocks took up his father's profession in London before retiring to Falmouth in 1842 at the age of 50. This was apparently due to recurring bouts of unspecified ill-health which continued for the rest of his life. Cocks' constitution must have had an underlying strength, given his active life and longevity: for the next 36 years, he was not only a prolific naturalist, but also keenly engaged in local politics, for the Liberal cause. His main contribution was a stream of lively cartoons and caricatures. Cocks was also an acute social observer, in his writing and drawings of contemporary mores..

..That he was a man of his time is clear, a certain type of Victorian professional with sufficient leisure (and thus means) to pursue a wide range of interests in that age of curiosity and discovery. From all the published sources, it would seem he was also an inveterate bachelor, there is no mention of family life anywhere.

F. Hamilton Davey in his appreciation of Cocks in 1909 adds [4]:

While Cocks will always be spoken of as a distinguished local naturalist, no reference to his life's work can be deemed complete which omits mention of his achievements in departments other than those connected with natural science..

..Everyone who knew Cocks speaks of him as a most genial companion and a man who never, even in his old years, lost touch with young men. To spend an evening with him, or to accompany him on one of his natural history rambles, was an event long to be remembered. He had a fine sense of humour, was a brilliant conversationalist, and his memory was as reliable as a written diary.

Clearly, Cocks was of a quite different personality to Gosse, who was shy and dedicated to his literalist Biblical beliefs. We know of the importance of Gosse to the increasing popularity of marine science, parlour aquaria and microscopy in the Nineteenth Century, as Edmund Gosse wrote two biographies of his father, including the well-known Father and Son. Few are familiar with Cocks, yet we know that he corresponded with Gosse and others about sea anemones and his correspondence was valued, which is why the notes by Cocks were retained and then gathered into the Haddon Collection. Stella M. Turk wrote in 1971 [5]:

If like Proust we think of our personal pasts as stilts on which we must balance, then we must also believe that science itself rests on its past – often precariously. The ability to manoeuvre such stilts is related to an understanding of their origins. Our present highly specialised, statistically-based professional attitudes in biology could not have come about had it not been for the few highly articulate, industrious and many-sided amateurs who helped to lay the foundations of modern natural history studies in the last century. Dr. W. P. Cocks, still alive less than a century ago, and in his working life a valued correspondent of such outstanding authorities as Milne Edwards, Yarrell, Gosse, Couch, Johnston and Ralfs.. ..was just such a naturalist.

Food for thought for those of us who continue to believe in the importance of the study of Natural History. Viewing the Haddon Collection was an exciting adventure for me, as I greatly admire the Natural Historians of the Nineteenth Century, their powers of observation and their means of communicating what they saw. Would Cocks have been surprised to know that someone was admiring his field notes in a Museum, more than 150 years after they were written?

[3] Tom Barnicoat (2008/2009) The Gilbert White of Falmouth. Thepolymagazine  pages 11-13.

[4] F. Hamilton Davey (1909) William Pennington Cocks, M.R.C.S. Reports of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society 76: 82-91.

[5] Stella M. Turk (1971) Wiliam Pennington Cocks (1791-1878), a West Country naturalist. Journal of Conchology 27: 253-255.

I would like to thank the Horniman Museum for allowing me to view the Haddon Collection and to reproduce the illustrations in this post. Michael Carver, Judith Hann and the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society provided valuable insights into the work of W. P. Cocks and it is a pleasure to acknowledge their help, together with that of Anna Holmes and Graham Oliver of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.