the thing I learned this week

November 21, 2018

I’m neck deep in researching 19th century ornithologists. Long story.

So lots of bird species are named after people. Wilson’s warbler. Swainson’s Hawk. That kind of thing. Wilson in particular — he’s got a lot of birds named after him. Like, a lot. I flip through field guides and it’s like, geez, who the heck is this Wilson guy and why does he have, like, all the birds named after him? I thought it was kind of cheeky because I assumed he was naming them after himself.

It turns out, the convention is that if you’re the first scientist to discover/describe a new species, you get to name it, but not after yourself. Because, as I mentioned, that’s considered kind of gauche. Scientists tend to name newly-discovered species after people they admire. It’s why cartoonist Gary Larson has a species of louse named after him, and various authors and public figures and so forth have species named after them.

Lots of naturalists in the 19th century really admired Alexander Wilson, and that’s why he has a ton of bird species named for him.  He was a contemporary of Audubon. In fact, he probably gave Audubon the idea of going around and painting all the American bird species — because he did it first.  Spencer Fullerton Baird, first curator of the Smithsonian, also has a bunch of birds (Baird’s sparrow, Baird’s sandpiper, etc.) named after him and was also massively respected by his contemporaries.

The book I just finished, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul, has lots of info on a bunch of these guys that birds are named after. It’s making me really happy to finally have stories behind those bird names.

 

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2 Responses to “the thing I learned this week”


  1. My favorite example of this practice (off the top of my head, anyway) is the dinosaur Drinker nisti, after Edward Drinker Cope and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


  2. *And it would be remiss of me not to mention Masiakasaurus knopfleri. 🙂


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