A Horrible Name for a Beautiful Lizard

Taxonomist’s conundrum: What to do when a species needs a new name, but the moniker available is unpleasant? Case in point: this verdant beauty is surely the loveliest of the Bahamas’ lizards. Long known as A. carolinensis, recent work demonstrated that Bahamian green anoles and American green anoles are not closely related and thus represent independent colonizations from their Cuban, A. porcatus, ancestors. Hence, unless one wants to sink them all into a single species (which by the rules of zoological nomenclature, would be given the name A. carolinensis, thus sinking porcatus and representing another instance of U.S. hegemony over Cuba), the Bahamian lizards need a new name.

And, alas, that name already exists, and it’s a stinker: A. smaragdinus. Trying saying it yourself. There are a number of different ways to pronounce it—I have no idea which is correct, but they’re all unpleasant. And don’t bother trying to shorten it: “smarags” is cacophonous as well. It’s a shame, really, because the epithet is apt, meaning “emerald  green” in Latin.

These little beauties are actually different from our familiar carolinensis. Perhaps most obviously they have a green belly, rather than the americano’s ivory slate, and they have a pointier snout. More generally, their body color is more lovely, a richer—dare I say, more smaragdinous—shade of green.

Does this name change have any practical consequences? In fact, it has one small impact: a great deal of ecological work—some of it quite significant in the development of the field of ecology—has involved this species, under the name A. carolinensis. For example, the term “resource partitioning” was coined in Schoener’s 1968 Ecology paper, which reported on ecological differences among the four anoles of Bimini: sagrei, distichus, angusticeps, and carolinensis, er, smaragdinus. Schoener had a number of other important papers involving Bahamian greens—I’m partial to his 1975 Ecological Monograph—and others, myself included, have published on them as well. This, of course, leads to awkwardness if one wants to refer to the species in those studies. Does one say that the work was done on carolinensis, smaragdinus, or “smaragdinus (formerly referred to as carolinensis, but Bahamian species are now known to be specifically distinct from their American counterparts).” Alas, I think the latter is the verbose, but most clear and correct, option.

Photo courtesy Todd Palmer.

About Jonathan Losos

Author and Professor at Harvard University
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9 Responses to A Horrible Name for a Beautiful Lizard

  1. Harry Greene says:

    Alas indeed, but here I think my dear friend and former student Losos is being a tad…provincial? Maybe from living in Europe hanging out at the Senckenberg Museum, being around German herpetologists and learning of the beautiful Smarageidechse, I came early-on to associate other herp Latin names involving smaragdinus with “emerald.” This seems to me a fine change, linking emerald with a beautiful and highly influential lizard!

  2. Jonathan Losos says:

    What a Smarageidechse? That’s an even uglier looking word!

  3. Harry Greene says:

    You are definitely going to hear from German herpetologists about THAT!

  4. cybokat says:

    Like Harry, I too associate the smaragd- with emerald- which to me doesn’t sound nearly as ugly as if I wouldn’t have made the mental connection between word and meaning. Emeralds are green, lizards are green (especially Smaragdeidechsen), consequently my subconscious is happy.
    In return, did you think about how “eugenegrahami” or “williamsmittermeierorum” might sound to the non-anglophone ear? or “ernestwilliamsi” for that matter? Somebody once asked me why I had named a beautiful frog “ulftunni” and my answer was: I think the frogs don’t really care.

  5. cybokat says:

    … feeling obliged to respond…

  6. David Hillis says:

    I like the name Anolis smaragdinus, and I can only see one way to pronounce it in Latin. Maybe it is not quite as nice a name as Anolis naufragus :-), but it is descriptive and accurate, and I like names that make people want to look up the etymology. It is also an interesting-sounding name. I also second cybokat’s comments that there are many much worse names (especially complex patronyms) out there, especially among the anoles!

  7. Rich Glor says:

    If the taxonomy gods were to permit one anole name change, I’d change Anolis eugenegrahami. No offense intended to Eugene Graham, but I think an amazing water-fall dwelling Haitian endemic deserves a name that matches its unique habits and grace.

  8. Jonathan Losos says:

    Chastened, I will henceforth try not to grimace every time I say “smar-AG-din-us” (or is it “smare-ag-DINE-us”? I never took Latin). And, true, it is nice to learn a new word, the meaning of which I was previously clueless. And, agreed, too, about patronyms, especially the really long one, and Steve Poe should be ashamed of himself for coining williamsmittermeiorum (so long that I mistakenly left the “Williams” half out of a picture of that species in my book).
    But while on the topic, sort of, what about humorous scientific names, the subject of a recent post and immense response on Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True? Sure, they’re amusing, but completely unhelpful in understanding anything about the biology of the species to which they are appended. And do they show that scientists are real people rather than humorless automatons, or do they diminish the credibility of our science (or both)?

  9. I also weigh in as pro-smaragdinus –“smar-AG-din-us”– as fitting. We’ve a handsome green skink with that epithet, so it’s not breaking new ground. Patronyms can be nice, but I think they have a tendency to be used without due consideration that they must eventually be printed on (often) very tiny labels. For that matter, it is particularly irksome to have Sphaerodactylus as a genus name for some of the smallest of lizards. I remember trying to Rapid-O-Graph that onto small specimen labels. Maybe that’s what happened to my eyes!

    Someone astute once pointed out that name assignment of taxonomy is unscientific. We leave incorrectly spelled names intact, retain names that are incorrect (“azureus” for a green iguanine that turns blue in preservative, for one), make the occasional pun that won’t last (Oedipus rex and Montypythonoides stand as examples). Granted, such patronyms can be very humourous: the spitting cobra genus Spacklandus of Raymond Hoser is a case in point. Why he picked on me to name snakes is beyond me, and I’m among those who hope it will not stand in the taxonomic realm.

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