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Sharing a name: an honour to bestow

By Lara Atkinson, Offshore Marine Scientist, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Figure 1. Paragiopagurus atkinsonae Landschoff & Lemaitre, 2017. Holotype collected in 2012 aboard the R/V Africana during a demersal fisheries research survey.


Figure 2. Kanakaster larae Mah, 2017. Specimen collected by Gary Williams in 1985 off Port Edward on the East Coast of South Africa.

South Africa’s Offshore Invertebrate Monitoring Programme, a collaboration between the demersal section of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), has been operational for seven years.

During this time there have been challenges, including vessel availability and capacity, however, together we have continued to find a way to record invertebrate species from the research trawl nets.

A valuable long-term data set on offshore invertebrates is starting to build. New species are being discovered through this programme, with 21 tentatively recorded so far. This is not too unexpected considering only 1% of South Africa's Exclusive Economic Zone beyond 1 000 m depth has been sampled (Griffiths et al., 2010).

Sharing a name with TWO deep-sea marine species

It is well known that the offshore ecosystem of South Africa is poorly researched and the potential for discovery of new species in this arena is high. The surprising part for me was when I received not one, but two manuscript proofs earlier this year, each with a species bearing a part of my name.

I feel truly honoured to have not one, but two brand new beautiful deep-sea marine species from South Africa sharing my name, and the official manuscripts were published just two days apart - Paragiopagurus atkinsonae published on 23 May 2017 (Landschoff and Lemaitre 2017, Figure 1) and Kanakaster larae published on 25 May 2017 (Mah 2017, Figure 2).

New 'green-eyed' species

Paragiopagurus atkinsonae Landschoff & Lemaitre, 2017, superficially looks very similar to the commonly occurring Sympagurus dimorphus hermit crab. However, the green eyes of P. atkinsonae caught my attention in 2012. The new 'green-eyed' species is distinguished by biserial gills, sexual dimorphism (right claw significantly larger in males) and the presence of specially shaped, unpaired second pleopods.

Additionally, they are currently known only to occur in a limited area off the West Coast of South Africa at depths between 199 m and 277 m. More research is planned to identify if this habitat has any unique features.

New starfish

Kanakaster larae Mah, 2017, is a starfish belonging to the Goniasteridae family with a single specimen being collected by Gary Williams in 1985 off Port Edward on the East Coast of South Africa in 120 to 125 m water depth. The specimen remained unidentified in a jar on the shelf of Iziko Museum of South Africa, until I secured funding through SAEON and the National Research Foundation to host Dr Chris Mah from the Smithsonian Institute in 2015.

It was during Dr Mah's visit to Cape Town that he recognised the specimen as being new to science. Kanakaster is also a new genus consisting of six species described by Mah (2017). The genus name is assigned to honour the Kanak, the native people of New Caledonia. Kanakaster larae is the only species found outside of the Pacific with the remaining species occurring in New Caledonia or the Phillipines.

The monumental 72-page Mah 2017 manuscript published in Zootaxa includes recognition and descriptions of three new genera (Bathyferdina, Eosaster and Kanakaster) and 14 new species.

Describing and naming a new animal

The field of taxonomy includes relatively few scientists; most of us are in the category of "field biologists", who may be likely to stumble upon an undescribed species. It is, however, the taxonomist who ultimately follows the rather arduous process of formally describing and naming a new species in the scientific literature.

As I have learnt over the past year, describing and naming a new animal is not a simple task and there are strict nomenclatorial rules to be followed, as set out in the most recent and 4th edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), published in 1999.

The first step required when a new species is thought to be found, is to conduct a thorough global investigation to confirm that the species has not already been described and named in the taxonomic literature. This can involve wide consultation with a range of expert taxonomists, visiting museums and examining collections to compare original type specimens used by previous zoologists to name species, reviewing historical literature and even conducting DNA sequencing, if feasible.

Once it has been confirmed that the species is indeed new, it must then be formally described by thoroughly detailing a wide range of physical characteristics including shape, size and descriptions of specific body parts that are used to distinguish this new species from other similar ones. The higher taxonomic placement of the species, such as family and genus, must be included and, if possible, any information of ecology or behaviour that may be available.

Detailed line diagrams and photographs showing key features must accompany the text. A holotype of the specimen must be identified that serves as the original identifier, and if possible, paratypes should also be identified that show variability (colour, size, gender, etc.) of the species. Details of how, where and when each specimen was collected must be provided.

What’s in a name

Then, a new name is required... and this is the creative side to taxonomy! Within the boundaries of the guidelines set by the ICZN, the taxonomist almost has free rein as to what to name 'his/her' new species.

Typically, species names are chosen to make reference to a particular unique and defining morphological character of the species, or sometimes to honour somebody, although it is not recommended to name a species after yourself! If, for example, the species is being named after a woman, '-ae' is added to the stem of the woman's name. If it is being named after a man, '-i' is added, '-arum' for more than one woman and '-orum' for more than one man, or a mixed group.

The person's name can be Latinised, or does not have to be if the name already has a Latin or Greek stem, e.g. Margarita. The taxonomist also needs to be sure the name has not been used before. All this work is done by the taxonomist. Collecting the specimen from the deck of a ship seems trivial in comparison.

A species or genus that is named specifically to honour a person or persons are known as patronyms, in contrast to eponymns, which are names given after an entity. Some taxonomists choose to name species after their favourite musician, politician or naturalist.

A quick survey on Wikipedia (18/07/2017) reveals that Sirindhorn, the Princess of Thailand, has the most number of species named after her at 13 species to date. Sir David Attenborough has 11 species named after him, including three plants, a fish, a beetle, a dragonfly, an anteater and even a dinosaur.

Barak Obama, also having 11 species named after him, is the American president with the most species bearing his name, while Theodore Roosevelt is the next highest, at seven species. Nelson Mandela has six species named after him to date, including three spiders, an extinct woodpecker, a nudibranch and a squat lobster.

In the musician category, Frank Zappa leads with six species bearing his name, with more recently discovered species being given names honouring musicians like Sir Elton John (amphipod), Jennifer Lopez (mite), Beyonce (horsefly) and Shakira (wasp).

Some taxonomists believe assigning patronyms after celebrities who will have fleeting fame, rapidly loses its meaning. However, other taxonomists believe that naming a species after someone famous of the era attracts more publicity and potentially gains recognition, respect and even research funding.

Either way, no matter what species shares one’s name, the ICZN strictly insists that no offence should be intended to the person after whom the species is named. George W. Bush was honoured to have a species of slime mould-eating beetle named after him and personally phoned the taxonomist to thank him for the honour.

So, although I am not famous or likely to attract much publicity or funding, I am very honoured to have two beautiful new marine species sharing my names. However, I still believe that the true congratulations go to the three taxonomists who navigated the arduous, painstaking process of identifying these as new species and publishing the manuscripts to make these names official.

I would like to congratulate Chris Mah1, Rafael Lemaitre1 and Jannes Landschoff2 on their monumental and speedy achievement, and thank them for recognising my minor role in the process and honouring me by sharing my names with 'their' species.

1 Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA. 

2 University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, Cape Town, South Africa.


Griffiths CL, Robinson TB, Lange L. and Mead A. 2010. Marine Biodiversity in South Africa: An Evaluation of Current States of Knowledge. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12008. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012008

Landschoff J. and Lemaitre R. 2017. Differentiation of three common deep-water hermit crabs (Crustacea, Decapoda, Anomura, Parapaguridae) from the South African demersal abundance surveys, including the description of a new species of Paragiopagurus Lemaitre, 1996. ZooKeys 676: 21–45.

Mah CL. 2017. Overview of the Ferdina-like Goniasteridae (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) including a new subfamily, three new genera and fourteen new species. Zootaxa 4271: 001-072.

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