What's in a name?

15 August 2014 | Compiled Yusuf Omar.
This frilled nudibranch, Leminda millecra, is named after Prof Charles Griffiths' daughter, Melinda. Image by Georgina Jones.
This frilled nudibranch, Leminda millecra, is named after Prof Charles Griffiths' daughter, Melinda. Image by Georgina Jones.

The scientific method might be stringent, but the methods for naming can often be weird and wonderful.

Take quarks, for example. Rather than being given a name derived from ancient Latin concepts, the subatomic particles derive their names from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which reads:


Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it's beside his mark.

While Joyce's "quark" rhymed with "mark", physicist Murray Gell-Mann coined the term 'quark' – as in 'cork' – because protons and neutrons each contain three of them. The names of the six types of quarks might also raise an eyebrow: up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom.

Golden moles

Dr Gary Bronner is a more visible example of a somewhat liberal scientific naming process. The UCT zoologist was "rather bemused" to have had a five-million-year-old fossil mole named after him in 2010. Chrysochloris bronneri was a golden mole that burrowed under the soils of the Western and Northern Cape many ice ages ago. It is closely related to the living Cape golden mole, Chrysochloris asiatica, which is common in the South-Western Cape and Northern Cape coastal plain.

Bronner was a member of the research team that was deriving a phylogeny (evolutionary tree) from the then-poorly-studied Chrysochloris family, comprising 21 golden mole species.

Maroon orchids and minerals

When it burrows up towards the surface, the golden mole might bump the roots of Disa linderiana, an orchid species named after former UCT professor Peter Linder. The maroon orchid was spotted by CapeNature field ranger Jacques van Rooi in 2004, in the Cederberg.

Ducking back below terra firma – but much deeper than your average mole could hope to dig – one finds a mineral called Mathiasite. This potassic iron-zirconium-magnesium chromian titanate is named after the late, legendary UCT geologist Morna Mathias. The mineral was described in a 1983 paper by Steve Haggerty of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and others, in honour of Mathias' seminal studies on alkaline rocks and her early contribution to the mineralogy, petrology and geochemistry of mantle-derived eclogites and peridotites.

Mathiasite is found in the earth's deep mantle, more than 100km below Southern Africa.

Shrimps and sea slugs

Sticking to the depths but moving under water, a genus of freshwater shrimp endemic to the Knysna area has the unique honour of being named after Professor Charles Griffiths' son, Matthew, whose request for a loo stop during a family holiday in the area led to his father noticing these animals in a roadside stream! The shrimp, named Mathamelita, was described by Griffiths and a colleague in 1995.

The Griffiths family was also involved with the naming of a new family of sea slugs – former UCT scientist Dr Roberta Griffiths (wife of Charles) named the colourful sea slug Lemindidae after their daughter Melinda (herself a recent PhD graduate from UCT).

Bat brothers

Associate Professor David Jacobs also decided to keep it in the family when he named a new bat species in 2009. Jacobs and his students came upon the yellow-bellied bat in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal in 2003. It was startlingly similar to its sympatric sibling, Scotophilus dingani, a bat named after the Zulu king Dingane. So Jacobs decided to name the new addition Scotophilus mhlanganii, after Dingane's half-brother, Mhlangani.

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Monday Monthly

Volume 33 Edition 07

18 Aug 2014

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