The scientific name of organisms consist of two parts: the genus and the species. The genus is a more inclusive rank, whereas the species is more unique. In a way, you can think of the genus name as an equivalent to your last name, where there will be more members (e.g. siblings and/or parents) with that same last name, and the species name as your first name; the two, together, will form a unique combination which applies only to you. We use scientific names in order to infer relationships amongst organisms, and these are usually latinized so that they can be understood by anyone, anywhere, as a common language, instead of using the common name which changes by country and language. Now, when describing a new species and giving it a scientific name, you can choose whichever name you think appropriate, as long as its not your own (Linnaeus was the one exception; there are other rules for naming, which you can find here). You can name a species after a musician who was an inspiration, the country where it was found, or in honor of a fellow researcher, just to name a few examples.
Renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson named several fossil sirenians from Florida (Simpson, 1932). Simpson had a thing for using cleverly latinized versions of formation or locality names for his new species. For example, he described some fossils from the Bone Valley district in central Florida and gave them the scientific name Felsinotherium ossivallense*, (ossivallense = Bone Valley), while another one he named Hesperosiren crataegensis*, which takes its name from Crataegus, the genus name of a plant commonly known as hawthorn, which in turn is also the name of the sedimentary unit, the Hawthorn Group, where Simpson's specimen was found. So, as a homage to G. G. Simpson and his work on the fossil sirenians from Florida we decided to use a latinized version of the name of the town of White Springs, FL, which is close to where the holotype (= name-bearing specimen) of our new species was collected; resulting in the combination Metaxytherium albifontanum.
*both Felsinotherium and Hesperosiren were later synonymized with Metaxytherium
Metaxytherium is a widespread and relatively well-known genus of fossil dugongid. There are now a total of eight species under this genus, it has a wide temporal distribution, ranging from the late Oligocene through early Pliocene, and a broad geographical distribution, with species known from Europe, northern Africa, and the Americas. Most of the species known were described and named between 1822 and the first half of the 1900's, so, unexpectedly, there was a bit of a taxonomic mess (this happens more often than we'd like). Fortunately, since 1987, there have been several papers providing us with detailed descriptions of some of the known species, as well as phylogenetic analyses (e.g. Domning and Thomas, 1987; Domning, 1988; Aranda-Manteca et al., 1994; Domning and Pervesler, 2001; Sorbi, 2008; Sorbi et al., 2012). These works have help clarify some of the taxonomic confusion surrounding some of the old names, and even a new species was described, Metaxyterium arctodites Aranda-Manteca et al., 1994, from Baja California and California. That makes M. albifontanum the first species of Metaxytherium named in 20 years!! Meaning that we are not done learning about the diversity of this group, and more may still be waiting to be described.
Relationships with Other Species
- I visited the Florida Museum of Natural History in 2011 to study one of the specimens (UF 49051), little did I know at that time that I would end up as a Postdoc here!
- You can see the name-bearing specimen, UF 49051, in the Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
- It so happened that I wrote this post from a desk at the Simpson Library of Paleontology, its filled with books and reprints donated by him, and...
- There are a lot of pictures of Simpson in this library, in some, he kind of looks like the long lost brother of Colonel Sanders...
Domning, D. P. 1994. A phylogenetic analysis of the Sirenia. Proceedings of the San Diego Society of Natural History 29:177-189.