A (sea) rose by any other name

Names are important to us as museum scientists. The scientific name is a key index for specimens and the hierarchy implicit in binomial nomenclature is essential to the organization of collections. Names also reveal historical connections, folklore, and biology of the organisms.

The scientific name is always given as a binomen, a two-part name consisting of a genus and species. As the words themselves suggest, the genus name is more “general” than the species name, identifying the larger group to which a species belongs. The genus name is capitalized and the species name is not, and by convention, both are rendered in italics (or underlined when handwritten). The genus name can be abbreviated to a single (uppercase) letter (e.g., H. sapiens, E. coli). The application of a binomen is governed by a series of rules (called the codes of nomenclature) devised and agreed upon by the scientific community. The nomenclature of animals differs slightly from that of plants (and fungi), reflecting the different histories and cultures of zoology and botany. The rules are designed to support and facilitate the description of biodiversity and include provisions for resolving conflicts in the application of names.

Many species (including ours!) have both a scientific name and common (or vernacular) name. Unlike the scientific name, which is the same in every language, a common name is generally language-specific and may even differ within a language across regions or over time.

The common European sea anemone Anemonia viridis

Anemonia viridis, the common European sea anemone, wasroos, anémone de mer verte

Take for example Anemonia viridis. The common name for this species in England is “the snakelocks anemone.” In Dutch, it’s “wasroos,” and in French, it’s “anémone de mer verte.” These common names emphasize different things about the animals–the long tentacles (English), the texture (Dutch), and the color (French).

In many cases, the common name and scientific name are essentially the same name – scientific names often have roots in Greek or Latin and the common name may be a translation of this (or vice versa -the scientific name may be a Latinization of a common name).

Nematostella vectensis – the “starlet sea anemone” is a great example. The name for the genus translates to “threadlike star,” which aptly describes its appearance.

Common names generally highlight the appearance or biology of a species, but may provide a glimpse into its history or refer to some aspect of its biology. For example, Lucernaria janetae was named to honor Dr. Janet Voight, a marine biodiversity scientist at the Field Museum. Janet was the motivating force behind the research expedition on which these deep-sea stalked jellyfish were collected.

In the nineteenth century, as part of broad enthusiasm for natural history, common names were chosen for many species that had previously escaped popular attention. For sea anemones, this meant a proliferation of names like “the Crimson Pufflet,” “the Sprawlet,” and “the Gem Pimplet.” As fanciful as these names seem, there is an internal logic to them: all of the species called Pufflets belong to the same group, as do the various Pimplets. The coiner of these common names was Philip Henry Gosse, a British naturalist and author who had better success with another of his invented words, “aquarium,” a portmanteau of “aquatic” and “vivarium.” Sadly, despite Gosse’s best efforts, common names are generally not used for anemones in English-speaking countries, with the exception of very common and widespread species or those sold through the aquarium trade.


OSU Professor Meg DalyAbout the Author: Dr. Meg Daly is Professor in the department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, director of the Museum of Biological Diversity and leads the laboratory of marine invertebrate diversity at OSU. She and her students study systematics of cnidaria, sea anemones, jellyfish and their like.

All photos taken by the author.

A Museum’s Role in De-Extinction

When you think of bringing back a species that is extinct, you may picture a huge Woolly Mammoth or a giant Tyrannosaurus rex. But have you ever pictured bringing back a plump, dove-like bird, the Passenger Pigeon? It seems a highly unlikely candidate for the de-extinct research being conducted by Long Now Foundation’s Revive & Restore. This group of geneticists are working on what they call genetic rescue, to both save highly endangered species and bring back extinct species. But what role do museums play in the de-extinction of a species that died out in 1914?

Cream colored passenger pigeon egg

Passenger Pigeon egg from the Tetrapod Collection © Hothem, 2016

Why Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon?

Imagine a sky darkened for hours because a cloud of birds are passing through a town on the way to their roosting spot. Though an amazing sight to behold these birds were actually quite damaging to the forests they used as a roost. Branches would break under the weight of nests and birds. Feces would cover the trees and ground and cause a rise in acidity in the soil. Scientists Ellsworth and McComb (2003) suggested that about 8% of the forests within the pigeons’ breeding area were damaged annually.

While all this sounds terrible for the forest, the birds were also aiding in the creation of a healthier forest. How? The damage they caused to the forest canopy, allowed more light to enter the forest. The feces they produced would actually add some nutrients to the forest floor creating nutrient rich soil. In addition, their main food source, various nuts from oaks and beeches, were able to spread throughout the Passenger Pigeon’s breeding range creating some of the various forest we walk through today.

Revive & Restore’s overall goal in de-extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is to fill the lost forest disturbance niche that the pigeon’s extinction caused. Researchers debate that by bringing back the pigeons the need for human managed forest fires or disruptions will be decreased. They hope to create more natural forest regeneration via the pigeon’s destructive behavior.

Drawer filled with passenger pigeon study skins

Tray with Passenger Pigeons ©Hothem, 2016

A Museum’s Role in De-Extinction

Museums, like vast libraries of natural history, hold the key for groups like Revive & Restore. Museum collections, such as the Tetrapod Collection here at OSU, are the final resting places for extinct species. Study skins hold the genetic material that researchers need to understand what genetic components are necessary to bring back or understand the evolution of a species. It is part of our mission to make sure that these species are understood not just in terms of location and date but also in terms of their genetic makeup or DNA. Using museum specimens for DNA sequencing of extinct species is not a new topic, in fact, it became popular in 1984 with examining dried quagga muscle tissue. Researchers then used this technique to confirm that the quagga, an extinct member of the horse family, really was as closely related to today’s horse as fossils suggested. Now researchers are looking at using Passenger Pigeon study skins to create a full genome of the species to better understand both its evolution and how to bring it back to today’s skies.

Be sure to check out the Tetrapod Collection’s campaign and help us purchase a new mobile cabinet for the extinct species in our collection. Our goal is to raise $5,500 and to educate people, about tetrapods throughout the month of October. Be sure to check out our videos, social media, blog and campaign page!

Passenger Pigeon profiles

Passenger Pigeons ©Hothem, 2016


About the Author: Stephanie Malinich is collection manager of the OSU tetrapods at the Museum of Biological Diversity.


Literature cited:

ELLSWORTH, J. W. and McCOMB, B. C. (2003), Potential Effects of Passenger Pigeon Flocks on the Structure and Composition of Presettlement Forests of Eastern North America. Conservation Biology, 17: 1548–1558. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2003.00230.x

Timing is everything: where and when to collect specimens

It’s often said that museum specimens offer us a snapshot into the past. More than simply being a record of what existed where and when, however, specimens can tell us about parts of the life histories of organisms that can’t easily be observed in the long term. As an adult human, I don’t change very much over the course of the year (holidays excluded), but many species undergo seasonal cycles that can be completely missed when collection only occurs during the “field season” (usually summer).

In the course of my work on sea anemones, I came upon a species identity crisis. A group of sea anemones from Alaska were combined with a Japanese species by certain authors, while others considered them to belong to a species found in California. They surely don’t all belong to one and the same group because the Japanese and Californian species have very different reproductive behaviors. In Japan, baby sea anemones are brooded upon the surface of the adult, and in California, the babies are brooded within the adult’s body.

Do the Alaskan sea anemones belong to either the Japanese or Californian species?

Do the Alaskan sea anemones belong to the Japanese or Californian species? -or neither?

The obvious question is “Do the Alaskan sea anemones brood (and, if so, how)?” To figure this out I contacted curators and searched databases from museums around the country and borrowed each specimen from Alaska that I could find (less than 10 in total, and none of them handled by the original author of that species). The specimens all had two important things in common: None had any sign of babies, either in or on their bodies, and they were all collected in the summer. The Japanese species broods primarily in the winter so, if the Alaskan ones are also external brooders, maybe they have just not been collected during the brooding season!

Thanks to a grant from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), I began planning the logistics of a field trip to Alaska. The timing for this trip was critical. Too early in the year, and I risk being stuck in Anchorage due to hideous weather at my sampling localities; too late, and I get nicer weather but possibly miss the brooding season. I planned the trip for early April, hoping to hit a sweet spot between the two extremes.

Brooded babies on the surface of Epiactis japonica

Brooded babies on the surface of Epiactis japonica, from Hokkaido, Japan.

My first sampling site was Popof Island. Unfortunately the prime rocky locality (I had identified it in satellite images) for my species of interest was inaccessible due to winter conditions, and most of the rest of the island was sandy shores. It’s also the original locality for the Alaskan species, so that site was a disappointment for my immediate purposes. So far, off to a bad start.

My next sampling site was Adak Island where I had better luck. Not only did I find the species I was looking for, but they were ringed with little baby sea anemones! Before returning home to the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity, I had another equally successful collecting stop on Kodiak Island where I found more of the external brooders. These animals partially answered the question I traveled all that way to investigate: The Alaskan sea anemones were not the same species as the Californian ones (and the Californian ones would need a new name). But are the Alaskan and Japanese species the same, or do they just behave in a similar way?

Epiactis ritteri with a ring of brooded babies (beige blobs)

Epiactis ritteri with a ring of brooded babies (beige). Adak Island, Alaska.

A walk on a nice sandy beach before collecting in the rocky intertidal  on Adak Island

A long walk on a sandy beach on the way to collecting in the rocky intertidal on Adak Island.

Based on anatomical study of the specimens I had already borrowed (and previous collections I’d made of the Japanese species) I had strong reasons to consider that all three groups were different species. Seeing the animals alive in the field gave me even more features to draw from (their color patterns and their resting posture -things which are frequently lost in preserved specimens). By chance I subsequently came across another specimen of the Alaskan species from another museum. This one had been identified by the original author (several years after he published the species description) and also had very large offspring all over its body!

It turns out all the information I needed already existed in previously collected specimens. Was my trip a waste?  Absolutely not! The new collections represent a time between the non-brooding summer season and the late-stage brooding of this new (to me) specimen. It turns out that during this intermediate time, the relatively small offspring are kept within a special groove that forms by a fold in the adult’s body wall and seals the babies inside. As the babies grow, the groove opens up and they simply live on the surface of the adult. My collections are the first record of this type of sealed groove, and they include life stages from early embryos to juvenile sea anemones, and of course the brooding adults. Furthermore, I needed fresh material for DNA analysis (formalin-fixed specimens are extremely difficult to get good DNA sequences from).

The sealed brood groove (horizontal band) in  Epiactis ritteri has partially broken open to reveal an offspring held within it (see two tentacle tips)

The sealed brood groove (horizontal band) in Epiactis ritteri has partially broken open to reveal one of the offspring held within it (see two tentacle tips).

Since the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity doesn’t house a sea anemone collection, I returned the favor to AMNH and donated the new specimens to its collections. The specimens I collected are just as much of a static ‘snapshot’ in time and space as any other single collection event, but when you combine snapshots from different times, you can begin to make a flip-book (or a .gif, if you must) that tells a dynamic story.


About the Author: Paul Larson is a PhD candidate at the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at The Ohio State University studying evolution of marine invertebrates. email: larson.309@osu.edu twitter: @mar_inv