What’s in a name? The “involucrate” of Lantana involucrata


My last post was about a nice little Florida native plant that I’m trying out (again) in the yard: Lantana involucrata. Now “lantana,” you’ll recall, in addition to being the name of a town not far from where I live, comes from the Latin for “flexible,” whatever that may mean when applied to these rather woody shrubs.

But in that recent post about this little flowering shrub, I never did get around to the definition or derivation of the specific name, “involucrata.” To do that requires a bit of background, so sit tight, hold on, and learn with me.

When I looked the plant up on the FNPS blog, Laurie Sheldon’s recent article on the different lantanas available told me that this species has white flowers “borne in flat-topped, sometimes involucrate heads.” Now flat-topped, that I understand, but “involucrate”? That has me scratching my head. Sure, you can look it up in a botanical dictionary, as I did, but it might not be a big help. According to my Facts on File Dictionary of Botany, involucre has the following meanings:

1. A protective structure consisting of a ring of bracts arising below the inflorescence in angiosperms with condensed inflorescences (e.g. the capitulum and umbel).

2. A sheathlike outgrowth of tissue in bryophytes protecting the archegonia or antheridia in certain liverworts.

3. A tubular extension of the thallus of hornworts that rises up and surrounds the base of the sporophyte.


Well, since we’re not talking about liverworts or hornworts, we can safely ignore definitions two and three. Let’s concentrate on definition number one.

“A ring of bracts.”

I know what a ring is, but what is a ring of bracts? Bracts, as you may or may not know, are modified leaves. They’re not actually flowers, but in many ornamental plants, like the Bougainvillea that grows on my neighbor’s side of the fence but only sends its thorny branches on our side, they put on a very showy display of “flowers,” while the true flowers are rather inconspicuous:

Bougainvillea flower (mouse over image to see labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version). Boca Raton, FL, March 31, 2015

That little white thing on the pink stalk? That’s the flower (technically it’s the pistil, the pollen-receiving part, while the stalk connects the pistil to the base of the flower where the anthers are located). You can see that there are two other stalks in this group, waiting their turns to flower.

“Arising below the inflorescence”

So a bract can subtend or, as my botanical dictionary definition has it, “aris[e] below the inflorescence” of a flowering plant (“angiosperm”), as it does in the Bougainvillea pictured above. But what’s the difference between an inflorescence and a flower?

An inflorescence is just a group of flowers that share a common stalk. The typical example of an inflorescence that most people call a flower is a sunflower:

Dune sunflower (mouse over image to see labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version). Boca Raton, FL, May 30, 2012

As you can see, it has a bunch of bright yellow ray-like “flowers” or “petals” surrounding a darker purple bunch of, um, things. Those things are the actual flowers. The yellow things are variously called sterile florets, ray flowers, ray florets, or even bracts. After all, they’re modified leaves.

Taken together, this arrangement is an inflorescence: a collection of small flowers arising from the same stalk.

Which brings us back to the lantana, whose specific name, involucrata, refers to the arrangement of its flowers into inflorescences with protective bracts arising beneath them:

“Flower” (actually inflorescence) of Button sage (Lantana involucrata). Mouse over image to see labels, or if you can’t do that, click here for the labeled version.

So that’s where Button Sage, Lantana involucrata, got its name: the flexible plant with clustered flowers protected by bracts. Got it? Don’t lose it.


Bailey, J., ed. 2003. The Facts on File Dictionary of Botany. New York: Facts on File.

Capon, B. 2005. Botany for Gardeners, revised edition. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

No need to panic: it’s just the first few panicles of fall


Welp, it’s the middle of October and the first few panicles of the muhly grass in my front yard are beginning to show up, right on schedule:

For those of you who may have forgotten your graminological terms, a panicle as defined by Walter Kingsley Taylor is

A compound inflorescence consisting of branched racemes; the flowers are on stalks that branch off larger stalks.

Got it? OK.

What that means in this case is that the flower (you do remember that grasses are flowering plants, right?) divides and divides again, sort of the way a compoundly pinnate leaf does. Here’s what I mean:

Notice how the purple stalk rises up out of the green, tightly rolled, leaf blade? And that as it comes out, it subdivides, and more little purple stalks branch off the first purple stalk? That’s how a branched raceme works.

At the moment only one of my two plantings is flowering, and with only three panicles, but that should change soon.The flowering season for this pretty bunchgrass is fall through winter and, as you know, fall doesn’t really start until late October or early November this far south and this close to the water. So in a week or two I expect to see a much showier bunch!

Equinox moon with rays


On the morning of the equinox, as I was fruitlessly attempting to capture an image of Mars near the waning crescent moon, I did manage to create a small mystery for myself with the digiscoped image of that crescent moon:

This is Day 25 of the lunar cycle, which means there are only 4 days until new moon, so there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to look at in this picture. From top to bottom, the most prominent features are the sunlit craters Pythagoras and Babbage (the latter has sunken walls and a prominent crater overlying it to the 4 o’clock position), then the vast expanse of the northern Oceanus Procellarum, broken by the crater pair Herodotus and Aristarchus, with the fine wrinkled area called Vallis Schröteri between/above them.

From there we continue south to the lonely Marius (lovely plurivocal name that; if you’ve not seen the Pagnol film, you really ought to, sometime, if you like old French movies), with an equally lonely Reiner to his lower left (SW). Reiner is situated near an interesting albedo feature (bright area) called Reiner Gamma, about which the moon master Chuck Wood has some interesting commentary. (In fact, after starting my research for this post, I noticed that the aforelinked LPOD photo mentions the very mystery feature I was looking up, so click the darn link!)

At the bottom of the vast Oceanus Procellarum is the prominent crater Mersenius, which has a line of what look like mountains leading toward it from the northeast. These “mountains” are unnamed but appear to be part of the wall that surrounds the Mare Humorum, which is in shadow to the east (right).

But what attracted my attention in this snapshot was how bright the left-hand side is. It’s pretty hard to overexpose one part of the moon so much, while leaving the rest of it in relatively decent tonal values. When I zoomed in (click the photo; it’s much better at larger sizes), I discovered that this overexposed region was a result of the bright ray system emanating from the western limb of the moon.

I’d never noticed it before, and the feature responsible isn’t really mentioned in the 1996 edition of the lunar observer’s bible (Rükl’s atlas), although it does appear in that book under the unassuming name Olbers A. Here is the portion of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory’s Quadrant map of the moon (1964) where the feature appears at far right (click the map for the full-size image, since the blog software helpfully “centers” the picture):

LPL quad map of southern Oceanus Procellarum region (Quadrant 2, detail)

It’s a bit hard to see what I’m talking about from that shot, so here’s a close-up of that close-up (again, click the image):

LPL quad 2 detail showing Olbers A

The IAU, apparently in recognition of the prominent ray system visible under day 25–like illumination, decided in 1993 to give the crater a name of its own, rather than have it be “the closest crater to the already-named Olbers.” The name they came up with was Glushko.

Rükl’s atlas from 1996 must have been prepared without updating to current nomenclature, because despite the fact that this name change dates back to 1993, this 1996  edition (published in 1990 in the author’s native Czech Republic) continued to call it Olbers A. I’m happy to report that the 2004 edition of the Atlas updates the name with the current IAU designation, Glushko.

This crater is rather small (43 km diameter), but it has a prominent sharp rim. You can see just how sharp, and how interesting this crater appears, in this radar image, taken with radar from the famous Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, with accompanying commentary by Chuck Wood. The melt texture to the north of the crater in that linked photo is really interesting; it shows how dynamic the process of creating the moon’s impact craters really was!

More action on the passionvine: Zebra heliconian


Florida’s state butterfly is supposed to be the Zebra Longwing:

So designated by the 1996 Florida Legislature, it was written into the Florida statutes under the Executive Branch (Title IV), Secretary of State section (Section 15) as follows:

15.0382 Official state butterfly.—The Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius) is designated the official state butterfly. History.—s. 1, ch. 96-153.

Section 15 also designates other key state symbols established over the years, including the state pie (Key Lime, of course), state soil (Myakka fine sand), and state beverage (“The juice obtained from mature oranges of the species Citrus sinensis and hybrids thereof is hereby adopted as the official beverage of Florida. History.—s. 1, ch. 67-4.”). (And since Gatorade was developed at UF, it is most definitely NOT the official “Florida State” beverage.)

I’ve written elsewhere about the problems with statutes like these, particularly in Section 15.031, which designates as our official state tree an organism that is more closely related to grasses than it is to trees.

Problems like this seem to creep up whenever we try to legislate organisms. Just as our state tree doesn’t really exist, neither does our state butterfly, at least according to our most recent and (presumably) accurate descriptions. Although the taxonomic name was incorrect even in 1996 when the Florida statute was adopted, the common name as legislated in 1996 became obsolete in 2001, when  NABA (the North American Butterfly Association), the organization that maintains both common and taxonomic names for North American butterflies, ruled on both the common and the scientific name in its checklist. They changed the common name from Zebra Longwing to Zebra Heliconian, and, following Brower (1994) they clarified the spelling of the taxonomic name as H. charithonia, not H. charitonius.

The Florida Legislature wasn’t just wrong once about the taxonomic name, though—it was wrong twice over! The “correct” spelling, established in 1994 with great clarity by Andrew Brower, of Cornell in 1993 when the article was written, at the American Museum of Natural History in 1994 when it was published, and now at Middle Tennessee State University, is Heliconius charithonia. That is, the specific epithet ends in –a, not –us; furthermore it is spelled with a –th-, not just a –t-. Got that, y’all?

Brower explains that it was some early- and mid-20th century revision that created the confusion over the spelling. Carolus Linnaeus described the species originally in 1767 as Papilio Heliconius charithonia (not charithonius). This name is invalid by today’s naming rules, though, since butterflies don’t all belong to the same genus (Papilio), despite what Linnaeus thought. (Smackdown!)

However, when Francis Hemming tried to create a valid type species for the group in 1933, he published a description under one name (H. charithonia L., whose type specimen would have been described by Fabr.), but soon discovered that this name too was invalid, so he quickly published another description with a slightly different spelling and different type specimen: H. charitonia L—with just a -t- instead of the correct -th-. A year later, he realized his mistake, but it’s not clear whether he stated his refound preference for the “h” until 1967, when he published his magnum opus, The generic names of the butterflies and their type-species.  OK, everyone still with me? We’re not done with the story…

It seems that a second set of revisers, W.P. Comstock and F.M. Brown, went to work in 1950 without awareness of Hemming’s vanishing-but-reappearing h.  Trouble is, they seem to have made a hash of it, despite being among the most respected names in the field (Comstock, after all! Comstock! Of course, this was William Phillips Comstock, not the famous John Henry Comstock of Cornell, but W.P. has a good publication history as well). Their argument, as summarized by Brower, relies on the fact that the index to Linnaeus’s description of the species has a typo in it as well!

[Despite Linnaeus’s original published description of the species as charithonia with a –th-,] the index of the 12th edition of Systema Naturae (1767) makes reference to charitonia, as does the 13th edition (1790). [Further,…] the name is etymologically derived from charites, Latinized from the Greek name for the Graces, and thus logically not containing the “h.” They [Comstock and Brown 1950] claimed that since the two spellings are of equal age, and since no other revisers had addressed the issue, they could choose charitonia as the proper spelling. Amazingly, in their next paragraph, they coined yet another version of the name, charitonius, to produce gender agreement between the genus and the species.

This argument depends on spelling in an index, rather than in the main text of a publication, and on an etymology that isn’t necessarily correct. And they were certainly wrong, by the rules of species-naming, to revise the latinate name for “correct” grammar. Dudes! Nomenclature rules!

Despite Brower’s article appearing in 1994, the Florida legislature’s act in 1996 designated the animal by not just the outdated taxonomic name, -us instead of -a, but by the wrong spelling of it, -t- instead of -th! To be fair, the legislature can’t really be blamed for not keeping current with butterfly taxonomy. (… Or can it?) As Brower notes in his article, “every major guide to butterflies published since. . .Comstock and Brown (1950) [lists] the species as ‘charitonia,’ (or even ‘charitonius,’ employing their demonstrably incorrect masculinization).” And of course, it’s not the legislature’s job to keep current on taxonomic names. I’m even reasonably certain that whatever handbook they (or their aides) referred to (perhaps even more than one) used the erroneous charitonius instead of the correct charithonia. After all, the bug book I go to most frequently (Marshall 2006) assigns it the same wrong name (H. charitonius), despite having a lovely photo of the correct butterfly.

And if our legislature can’t reasonably be blamed for the error in the scientific name in 1996, they certainly can’t be blamed for not predicting the future—the common name change in 2001 nullified their 1996 designation of Zebra Longwing. The common name according to NABA is now Zebra Heliconian, to comply with a name change for this entire family of butterflies. After all, according to the committee’s commentary, the name “longwing” was neither the exclusive property of this group, nor did it apply to all members of the group!

[N]umbers of other groups of butterflies also have “long” wings. Ithomiines, widespread in the American tropics have wings shaped liked heliconians. The wings of African actinotes, of mimic-whites (pierids in the subfamily Dismorphinae), and of skippers in the genus Panoquina are all long. And, not all heliconians have long wings.

So the common name now more clearly expresses this butterfly’s relation to other butterflies in the heliconian group. What does all this have to do with the passionvine in my backyard?

Well, this morning I noticed a yellow-barred heliconian (if you put it in initial caps, that would be the common name for this species as it appears in the 1931 Butterfly Book by W.J. Holland) fluttering over the tender growing tips of the vine. As usual with this species, I had a hard time photographing it, but here’s my best shot from today:

As you can see, it appears to be inspecting these tender plant parts for their suitability as egg hosts. If you click on the picture to get the larger version, you can probably see the eggs that it has already laid, as usual for this species, in clusters (unlike the usual one egg-per-leaf arrangement of the related heliconian species, Agraulis vanillae, commonly known as the Gulf Fritillary).

Since eggs don’t fly away when you approach them, I was able to get some reasonably good shots of the egg clusters she left behind:

And, at long last, here is one of the single eggs, miraculously in decent focus:

I think what this episode really shows is the truth of that obvious truism that our names for these creatures are nearly as ephemeral as our sightings of them. By the time I got my camera on the bug, it had already done most of its business. Before I was done with mine, it was long gone.

We should probably remember that the names we use for organisms, whether common names or scientific ones, are only signifiers, not signifieds. Sue Hubbell describes this problem quite nicely, so I’ll let her have the next-to-last words:

[These names, these taxa] are sorting words that we humans use to group a dizzying array of individual bugs that otherwise we would find too many and too confusing to think about. Because of the way we have evolved, we have sorting kinds of brains and feel more comfortable if we put what we see in the world into various piles and categories so that we can get a handle on them. But this says more about us and our brains than it does about the world outside our heads, and we shouldn’t mix up these categories—these taxa—with reality.

Whether you put this yellow-barred heliconian in the Longwing pile or the Heliconian pile; whether you call it a butterfly or a moth  (the distinction between day-flying clubbed-antennaed butterflies and night-flying feathery-antennaed moths is fraught with exceptions, exclusions, and in-betweens),  the animal doesn’t really care. It just wants to pass on its genes. Ironically, as I went out to take pictures of this yellow-barred heliconian, it was going about that business with gusto: it seemed to be chasing away another heliconian species, the Gulf Fritillary, which, had it been allowed to lay eggs on the plant as well, would have put its brood in competition with the young of our state butterfly. And no matter what we call the beast, it can’t allow that.


Brower, A.V.Z. 1994. The case of the missing H: Heliconius charithonia (L., 1767) not “Heliconius charitonia (L., 1767)” J. Lep. Soc. 48: 166–168.

Comstock, W. P., Brown, F. M. 1950. Geographical variation and subspeciation in Heliconius charitonius Linnaeus (Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae). Am. Mus. Novit. 1467:1–21.

Hubbell, S. 1993. Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs. New York: Random House.

Marshall. S. A. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

NABA Names Committee (Cassie, B., Glassberg, J., Swengel, A., Tudor, G.). 2004. North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Checklist & English Names of North American Butterflies. Second Edition. Morristown, NJ: North American Butterfly Association.

Remington, C. J. 1959. William Phillips Comstock (1880–1956). J. Lep. Soc. 13:30.

Florida Word of the Day: Hastula

Today’s word is a botanical term, hastula, which I assume originates from the Latin hasta, spear. I can only assume it because I don’t know it for a fact. None of my desk references, not Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, not the “unabridged” American Heritage 4th edition, not even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary admit the term into the language. Even the online OED gives me this sad result:

No results, alas, even in OED

So, what to do now? Well, go back to the book in which the hard word arose. In this case, it’s Wunderlin and Hansen’s Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida, 2nd edition. There, we see its use in botanical description of the leaves of Sabal palmetto, the cabbage palm:

Leaf blades triangular, held in a V with a downward curve, the costa extending fully or nearly the length of the undivided portion of the blade, the hastula acute to attenuate, the margin with long free fibers.

Ah-ha. Mm-hm. As I suspected. No help here. It’s got something to do with the leaves, or the leaf blades, but context really isn’t helping.

A quick Google search, though, turns up a nice definition from an article on invasive exotics in Hawai’i:

hastula In some palmate palm fronds, a flange of tough material on the upper side of the petiole where it joins the frond blade

That helps. So does this rather more technical definition from A Revised Classification of Fossil Palm and Palm-like Leaves, by Robert W. Read, Leo J. Hickey, which appeared in Taxon, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Feb., 1972), pp. 129-137:

A ligule-like structure (hastula) at the apex of the petiole (usually only on the adaxial surface, rarely on both surfaces) where the radiating segments are inserted on the palmate blade.

Now, if I only knew what a ligule was, I’d be in business. After all, if two respected scholars like Read and Hickey tell me that a hastula is ligule-like, well, that’s good enough for me! But here the editors of MW11e are kind to me, and explain that a ligule is

a scalelike projection esp. on a plant: as a: a thin appendage of a foliage leaf and esp. of the sheath of a blade of grass.

Whew. What a relief! Aren’t you glad to know that a hastula is like a scalelike projection on a plant? Sometimes learning about words can feel like you’re caught, like Eloise, on that gigantic traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe:

And to come, ahem, full circle, i.e., return to the information about Sabal palmetto in Wunderlin and Hansen that I was looking up,  it’s obvious that the shape of the scalelike projection known as a hastula can vary. In the cabbage palm, its form is “acute to attenuate.”

Geometrically, of course, an acute angle is one smaller than 90°. In nonmathematical terms, of course, acute means, “ending in a sharp point.” Botanically, I suppose, it means pretty much the same thing.

And here is what MW has to say about attenuate:

at·ten·u·ate \ə-ˈten-yə-wət, -yü-ət\ adj [ME attenuat, fr. L attenuatus, pp. of attenuare to make thin, fr. ad- + tenuis thin] (15c). tapering gradually usu. to a long slender point <~ leaves>

So the hastula of the cabbage palm is acute to attenuate, and looks something like this:

I think, given the photographic evidence, that I am justified in deducing that the word hastula has the same origin as hastate, which does indeed come from the Latin hasta, spear.

Below is another form the hastula can take, much more rounded. It’s from a different species of palm, one I have yet to identify:

And this final version of the hastula is even less spearlike than the last; it’s just a thin strip of plant tissue that separates the petiole/stalk from the palm leaflets/fingers:

So I’m not too solid on the derivation of the word, but my guess is that the first ones described were indeed spearlike, and the name stuck, even though, as the pictures above prove once again, etymology doesn’t dictate to nature.

In case you were wondering about that one-sidedness of the hastula that Read and Hickey discuss, well, here’s what it translates to in images:

See, no hastula on the adaxial side of the frond; if you want to see it, you have to turn it over and look at the abaxial part.

Pro(toc)tista redux: the Phaeophyta

I’d already been planning a follow-up of my recent post on that oddball eukaryote kingdom, Pro(toc)tista, just to discuss a couple of phyla that interest me [the brown algae, which include kelp and seaweeds, and the Bacillariophyta, which include diatoms (if you were in and around swimming pools as much as I was when I was younger, you’d probably wondered what diatomaceous earth was made of)], but before I got very far on the draft, I actually received my second nonfamily nonfriend comment, this time from a student in Canada who goes by the name Psi wavefunction* and obviously knows a lot more about these little beasties (the link is to her introduction to protists on her blog) than I ever will.

In her comment on Tuesday’s post, she points out that most researchers do not recognize Margulis’s distinction between protists and protoctista; hence they prefer the simpler form, protist. That’s fine with me; easier to spell, and thus, for my purposes at least (I’m a naturalist interested in science, not a scientist interested in nature), better. And after all, Margulis’s explanation for preferring the harder word (aren’t there enough of those in this area already?) doesn’t really hold water. Why would it be hard to remember that protists can be multicellular, if you know what a protist is in the first place? Does adding a -toc- to the name make it more obvious that protists are small and protoctists can be large? I doubt it. Or is the priority of the word protist so important that anything multicellular (and hence “nonprotist”) would threaten the taxonomic integrity of the kingdom**? I doubt it.

So anyway, that’s why I put the toc in parens in the title of this post, and why I will drop it going forward, in favor of Protista/protists.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled investigations. While that recent post was about Protista in general (i.e., the “everything else” of the eukaryote world), today I’d like to look at a couple of different phyla: the multicellular, and hence potentially quite large, Phaeophyta (brown algae) and the quintessentially tiny Bacillariophyta (the diatoms). With apologies to Ms. Waveform ( ;^) ), I will still use M&C for my basic information, just because it’s on my desk and, as she herself recognizes, is “the only non-ancient comprehensive introduction/overview of protists.”***

In the five-kingdom taxonomic scheme that I follow, faute de mieux, Phaeophytes (also known as brown algae) are classified as protists. And they are the largest protists we know. Mactocystis pyrifera (the giant kelp you’d find in Monterey Bay), for example, can grow to be over 50 meters long (M&C give a more conservative length estimate for the phylum of 40 meters, but these people are really microbiologists at heart, so they probably prefer smaller numbers to larger ones as a matter of principle…). Other brown algae species are smaller, but still quite a bit larger than most other protista, which tend to be microsopic. Brown algae, though, along with their cousins red algae (Rhodophyta for M&C) and yellow-green algae (not recognized by M&C, as far as I can tell), are large enough that they’re easily noticed when you’re walking on the beach.

Since this blog is nominally about nature in south Florida, I’d love to get you some information on one of the many phaeophyte species to be found in Florida, but I don’t have much data on them yet. I mean, for the life of me I never thought I’d need to shell out the moola for Dawes’s Seaweeds of Florida. Shoulda trusted the Amazon recommendations, I guess! Oh, well. Until I get a research grant, I guess we’ll have to make do with a picture of this unidentified member of the genus Sargassum, found washed up on a genuine beach here in south Florida:

Sargassum, of course, is named after/gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, a giant region in the middle of the North Atlantic that isn’t really a separate sea (it’s all one ocean, after all), but instead, as Wikipedia puts it,

a region in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, surrounded byocean currents. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf Stream; on the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. This system of currents forms the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.

The sea was apparently named by Portuguese mariners for the large quantity of seaweed (sargaço) that is found there. Some of the most amazingly adapted fish can be found here; if Wikipedia had a decent photo, I’d show it to you, but since they don’t, check out the link above to the Florida Museum of Natural History. It’s way cool.

Only specialists (or those who have already bought their copies of Dawes!) distinguish among the various Sargassum species. Naturalists like me follow the Withertons’ field guide to Florida beaches (Florida’s Living Beaches), which shows you how to distinguish between pelagic sargassum species and those that have holdfasts (i.e., are sessile rather than planktonic); we leave the heavy lifting to those with a more serious interest in seaweed. One oddity about the Withertons’ book, though: they place Sargassum in the yellow-green algae (Xanthophyta), which don’t make it into M&C at all. I have to think that’s a mistake, since I don’t see seaweeds anywhere in those organisms. And in ITIS, all algae are still assigned to kingdom Plantae, so something’s rotten here, even though we’re not in Denmark…

Diatoms, apparently the sole members(?) of the phylum Baccillariophyta, unlike brown algae, are always microscopic, at least as individual organisms. There are between 10,000 and 100,000 extant species of these little guys, depending on which specialist you believe, scattered across some 250 genera, with another 70 genera from the fossil record.

But since this post is already growing unwieldy, we’ll have to save discussion of these little gems for another day. Maybe by then I’ll have figured out why, in their article on this phylum, they are introduced without apology by a sentence that nowhere contains the phylum name: “Beautiful aquatic protists—perhaps 10,000 living species—diatoms are single cells or form simple filaments or colonies.” They are absolutely beautiful, though, so in the meantime, take a look at the thumbnails in this Google image search.

* Psi’s (Ms. Wavefunction’s?) comments prompted me to reconsider my laziness in relying on a single source (Margulis and Chapman) for my knowledge of this gigantic world of tiny (and not-so-tiny) creatures. While I generally frown upon rants, particularly name-calling ones, I do appreciate people providing me with more perspective in the too-too-many areas in which my ignorance can manifest itself. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

** To refresh our memory of the most fundamental elements of taxonomy, let’s review the kingdoms again. In the 5-kingdom schema, it can be described with a pair of “x/not-x” distinctions: 1. There’s the prokaryote kingdom Bacteria, and then there’s everything else (the other 4 kingdoms, all eukaryotic). 2. Among the eukaryote kingdoms, there are the three well-defined ones (Animal, Plant, Fungus), and then there’s everything else (Protists). Pretty simple, no?

*** I will, however, be spending more time on the references she recommends (T. Cavalier-Smith, Predation and eukaryote cell origins: A coevolutionary perspective. Int J Biochem & Cell Bio, 41, 2, 307-322), so I can try to identify any pitfalls in the “origin stories” of my only major reference. To a naturalist, though, origin stories are much less important than field encounters, so I don’t feel too pressured to overcome my ignorance in the next five minutes…

Florida word of the day: patronym

A reader commented on yesterday’s post about the use of the word patronym, which prompted me to look into the matter more closely. In my day job, I would have used the word “eponym” where the committee on ornithological names used “patronym.” After all, not only is there a problem with the etymology (patronymic, “Of, relating to, or derived from the name of one’s father or a paternal ancestor,” according to the American Heritage team), but, being gender coded, it seems not to describe those wonderful birds who code as female, like those southwestern warblers that I hope one day to add to my life list, Lucy’s and Virginia’s!

Why did the committee choose patronym instead of the non-gender coded eponym (“a word or name derived from the name of a person”), though? My first thought was that the committee didn’t use thesauruses (thesauri is also correct as a plural), but upon consulting the OED and finding that there is a specific taxonomic–and gender-neutral–definition for patronym (“A Latin name based on the name of a person or persons.”), I just assumed that there was a big meeting somewhere and they decided that not only could they could define away the gender coding in the etymology, they could also lop off the terminal -ic that our American dictionaries retain.

So, it seems that only our American dictionary teams see the gender coding in the word. I wonder what that says about political correctness on our side of the pond?

There’s also the issue of the oddly shortened form of the word; both MW and AH list only patronymic, rather than the shorter, simpler, patronym. Here the committee followed the recent trend in scientific writing to use shorter forms of words whenever possible (the “-ic/-ical” rule we call it in editing: physiologic instead of physiological, etc.)

At the same time, though, the committee wisely bucked this trend to shorter forms, which, when taken to the extreme the way the editors of the AMA Manual of Style do, requires that one lop the apostrophe s off of eponyms, creating hard-to-read concepts like “Crohn disease.” The rule also applies to anatomical structures, so Meckel’s diverticulum now becomes Meckel diverticulum. Really, just because it’s “consistent” doesn’t make it reader-friendly.

So, just remember this: a species name with a patronym doesn’t have to be named after (or even by) a man. By definition.

Florida word of the day: Red-shouldered Hawk

Yes, I know it’s more of a bird of the day than a word of the day, but bear with me. My recent post about raindrops led me to venture into the realm of the compound word. With any such venture comes the inevitable discussion of the hyphen. And hyphens are a real bugaboo in bird names, as any birder can tell you. Audubon, for example, spelled Sturnella magna‘s common name with a hyphen: “Meadow-lark.” We know it as “Eastern Meadowlark.” In this instance, the dropping of the hyphen seems to be a result of overwhelming popular usage over the years. In other cases, though, the dropping of the hyphen is mandated by the rules of the international body that is seeking, perhaps quixotically, to standardize the English names of the 10,000+ species of world birds: the International Ornithological Congress (confusingly also known as the International Ornithological Committee).

Their rules state, for example, that since the Meadow-lark is not a lark, nor is it in the lark family, the hyphen should be deleted and the word closed up, to avoid confusion. That is, if a bird name is a compound. it should be spelled as one word

if the second word is a kind of bird (e.g., Nighthawk, Bushtit, Waterthrush, Meadowlark). but the taxon is not a member of the bird family named.

So, for instance, the funky birds formerly known as Cuckoo-Shrikes should now be called Cuckooshrikes, because they are neither cuckoos nor shrikes:

A Meadowlark is not a Lark; a Cuckooshrike is not a Shrike. Thus the name cannot be spelled as two words without a hyphen (e.g., Meadow Lark), or spelled with a hyphen followed by a capital letter (e.g., Cuckoo-Shrike).

(Actually, it doesn’t matter if the bird name in the first word isn’t accurate; the rule only cares about the bird name in the second word.) Now remember, right now we’re only dealing with compounds where the second word is a bird name; there are entirely different rules governing descriptive adjectives placed before the noun (whether the noun is compound or not makes no difference).

Another part of the convention is to use initial capitals. That is, one capitalizes the first letter of the word: easy-peasy if the name is simple, like Robin, or, to use a New World thrush, American Robin. But, if the name is compound, and therefore perhaps hyphenated, it starts to get a little complex. Standard editorial practice (that is, unconcerned with matters taxonomic) required hyphenated words in “initial caps” style to hyphenate only the first word, not the second. That is, if the compound is hyphenated one DOES NOT CAPITALIZE* the first letter after the hyphen.

Actually, it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. Here is the CMS rule for capitalization in headline style with hyphenated words:

8.169 Hyphenation: the simple rule. Capitalize only the first element unless any subsequent element is a proper noun or adjective.

8.170 Hyphenation: the more traditional rules. (1) Always capitalize the first element. (2) Capitalize any subsequent elements unless they are articles, prepositions, coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor) or such modifiers as flat or sharp following musical key symbols. (3) If the first element is merely a prefix or combining form that could not stand by itself as a word (anti, pre, etc.), do not capitalize the second element unless it is a proper noun or proper adjective. (4) Do not capitalize the second element in a hyphenated spelled-out number (twenty-one, etc.). (5) Break a rule when it doesn’t work.

Hence, according to both the simple and the complex rules CMS supplies, and according to the IOC’s name list, Buteo lineatus lineatus (Gmelin, 1788) is Red-shouldered Hawk, not Red-Shouldered Hawk.

Below are the complete brief rules adopted by the IOC:

  1. Official English names of birds are capitalized, as is the current practice in ornithology (e.g., Yellow-throated Warbler).
  2. Patronyms are used in the possessive case (e.g., Smith’s, Ross’s).
  3. Names on this list do not include diacritical marks.
  4. There are compromises between British and American spellings in this list.
  5. Those who adopt the list should spell and add pronunciation marks as preferred.
  6. Geographical words in a name may be in noun or adjective form but must be consistent for that location (e.g., Canada , not Canadian).
  7. Compound words conform to a series of rules that consistently address relationships between the two words and readability.
  8. Use of hyphens in compound group names to indicate relationships among species is minimized, contrary to Parkes (1978).
  9. Hyphens are used in compound names only to connect two names that are birds or bird families (e.g., Eagle-Owl, Flycatcher-shrike) or when the name would be otherwise difficult to read (e.g., Silky-flycatcher, White-eye).

There are, though, odd exceptions, like Eagle-Owl, which is spelled hyphenated because it would be hard to pronounce at first glance without hyphenation (Eagleowl), and the Owl is capitalized because, well, I’m not sure why. If you try arguing from the CMS rules above that Owl is capitalized because it’s a proper noun, I’ll give you a funny look (or an emoticon expressing amazement, like so:  :^0 ) and ask you if you know what a proper noun is. If you say that it’s capitalized because an Eagle-Owl is an owl, well, duh. But then, what about other hyphenated forms, like shrike in Flycatcher-shrike, or flycatcher in Silky-flycatcher which aren’t capitalized? Ah, the comittee thought of that too:

• Where both nouns are the names of birds or bird families a hyphen should be inserted to signify that the taxon belongs to the family of the second word, not the first (e.g., Eagle-Owl, Nightingale-Thrush). This conforms to correct English use of hyphens.
• If a name is of a taxon that is not a member of the stated bird family, the letter after the hyphen should be lowercase to clarify that status (e.g., Flycatcher-shrike). This is a companion to the rule, described above, applicable to single-word names that hyphenates them to avoid confusion, as in Silky-flycatcher or Stone-curlew.

Flycatcher-shrikes aren’t shrikes; Silky-flycatchers aren’t flycatchers.

Anyway, who really cares? Let’s get back to our FLWOD, Red-shouldered Hawk. Here is a picture of one we found out at the Loxahatchee NWR in December, 2008:

As you can see by the patches on the shoulders, its common name applies fairly well. And as you can see by the horizontal barring on the flanks, the scientific name (Buteo lineatus) applies pretty well also. Buteos are the most abundant hawks in North America, with broad wings (one member of the genus. B. platypterus, is called Broad-winged Hawk, although its wings are not particularly broader than its congeners), and a robust, powerful body. (Buteos, by the way, are called buzzards in the Old World, which confuses the heck out of people here in the New World who think of vultures as buzzards.)

The “Florida” Red-shouldered Hawk is B. lineatus alleni, named by Ridgway back in 1884. According to Arthur Cleveland Bent, whose Life Histories of North American Birds series was THE reference tool of the 20th century:

In Florida it is decidedly the commonest hawk and quite evenly distributed in all kinds of timbered regions; it seems to be equally at home in the extensive flat pine woods and in the dense live-oak hammocks. It is much more abundant than hawks are elsewhere, is quite tame and conspicuous, and, during the breeding season, very noisy. It seems to be less of a forest bird and is oftener seen in open country than is its northern relative. It is most abundant in regions like the Kissimmee Prairie, where wide open prairies or savannas are dotted with small hammocks of live oaks and palmettos. In the flat pine woods it is more widely scattered and seems to prefer the smaller tracts or the vicinity of small cypress swamps. (200)

That paragraph, published in 1937, can stand today with only one minor modification: I would delete the word “extensive” in the first sentence. Most of Florida’s flat pine woods are gone now, victims of our understandable desire to build homes in areas that are reasonably easy to clear and relatively high and dry. (I say relatively, because many pinewoods in Florida are seasonally flooded.)

The canonical FL reference book, Stevenson & Anderson’s Birdlife of Florida adds:

The Red-shouldered Hawk inhabits swamps, river floodplains, moist woodlands, and hammocks. It forages both above and below the canopy, locating prey from the air or a perch in a tree. It also hunts at the woodland’s edge, drainage canals, and marshes and often perches on a fence, utility pole, or wire along the road-side. The Red-shouldered usually flies directly to seize its prey. It eats rodents and other small mammals, as well as frogs, toads, and a variety of insects. Birds make up only a small portion of its diet. (165)

Now the bird pictured is a B. lineatus alleni, Florida Red-shouldered Hawk, not one of the many northern birds that join “our” birds for the winter. Ridgway describes Florida’s RSHA in comparison to the northern form thusly:

smaller than B. lineatus, the adult much paler in color, with no rufous on upper parts, except on lesser wing-coverts; the young decidedly darker than in true lineatus…. The very decidedly ashy coloration of the upper parts relieved only by fine shaft-lines of black on the head and neck, dusky clouding on the back, and white streaking on the occiput, combined with the pale coloration of the lower parts, serves readily to distinguish this race from the true B. lineatus. (Bent, 199)

Ridgway, of course, was practicing shotgun ornithology, describing minute plumage details seen best on a bird in the hand. I can’t see much of this bird’s back, but it sure looks like the bird has a much paler head than, say, this California RSHA:

Sorry about the poor autofocus on this bird; the weeds in the foreground confused the sensors in my non-VR non-prime 70-300 lens. Sigh. If you want better pictures to compare B. lineatus lineatus to B. lineatus alleni, try Cornell’s site.

At all events, the Red-shouldered Hawk is one of the coolest birds in Florida. Hope you enjoy it!

*It’s irony. Get it? Spelling in all caps the very words that tell you not to use capital letters? Get it? Get it?

Florida word of the day: pickerelweed

In my day job, I spend a lot of time with my nose in dictionaries and style manuals. And today, while thumbing through Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition* (you see why in the trade we call it MW11), I ran across a headword (MW11 calls them “guide words”) that I actually know something about, and, what’s more, is on topic for a blog about nature in south Florida: pickerelweed.

Here is what the MW team has to say about the plant:

pick·er·el·weed \-,wed**  n (1836) : a shallow-water monocotyledonous perennial plant (Pontederia cordata) chiefly of the eastern U.S. and Canada with large leaves and a spike of purplish-blue flowers

That definition is true enough, but it doesn’t go very far. And a picture is worth 1000 words (actually, the MW11 team thought of that, too, but I don’t want to scan their line drawing and break copyright; they have the picture on their own website, though, if you want to follow the link):

The image above shows the “pickerel” spike, but there’s much more to this plant than that. For one thing, the leaves, which, as MW11 admits, are large:

For another thing, the common name of the plant, pickerelweed, seems to come from its shape, which one must suppose, is somewhat like that of a pickerel. Whether this quick association makes sense, though, remains to be seen. So let’s go see!

According to MW11e, a pickerel is either what the Brits call a small pike (sounds reasonable enough), or:

either of two fishes resembling but smaller than than the related northern pike: (1): CHAIN PICKEREL (2): one (Esox americanus) of eastern No. America having green or red fins and a black bar below and slanting away from the eye 2 : WALLEYE 3 [which, if you follow that cross-reference, MW11 tells us is “a large vigorous No. American freshwater food and sport fish (Stizostedion vitreum) that has large opaque eyes and is related to the perches but resembles the true pike—called also walleyed pike

So, as far as I can tell according to MW11e, this plant, Pontederia cordata, must either look like a little British fish or a large vigorous North American fish. Of course, if you follow taxonomic changes, you’ll find that the MW11e team is a bit out of date; the walleyed pike is no longer called Stizostedion vitreum, but Sander vitreus. I assume that doesn’t change too much about the facts of the case, though: this plant must be the plant that looks like a fish, right?

Well, sort of. Actually, opinions vary. Maybe it’s a mistake to rely on one dictionary’s definition; let’s see what the American Heritage team brings to the table:

pick·er·el·weed n. A freshwater plant (Pontederia cordata) of eastern North America, having heart-shaped leaves with long petioles and spikes of violet-blue flowers.

Leaving aside the typographic considerations (AH actually uses periods at the end of their definitions! Hallelujah!), this definition does bring a bit more clarity to the issue. The leaves are described as heart-shaped; MW’s team is happy with the vague description “large.” AH also mentions that the petioles (what most people think of as “leaf stems”) are long; MW doesn’t seem to care about this. Then again, MW does provide a picture, which AH doesn’t, so maybe they were relying on those 1000 words to flesh out the missing details from their 25-word description. And when it comes right down to it, neither team has defined the plant all that well, despite having 64-dollar words like monocotyledonous or petioles.

Many botanical descriptions of the plant are much more helpful, explaining that the leaves are twice as long as they are wide, with heart-shaped BASES, etc. etc. The leaves do bear somewhat of a resemblance to the pickerel fish, although I suspect they look more like the namesake of the pickerel, which is the pike, itself named after its resemblance to the weapon:

A pike

A pike

Or was it the other way around? People were probably catching pikes to eat long before they were making them to keep people beyond sword’s length. MW11 tells us that the word for both the fish and the pointy spiky spear date from the 13th century. The Old English word pic, meaning sharp point, might be behind both words. (The verb form, to pike, comes from the French piquer, to prick.) Oh, for a good etymological dictionary! Speaking of which, the OED cites the pike as fish as far back as 1314; pike as sharp point goes back much, much further; pike as weapon dates from about 1275.

However, there is another option for the derivation of the name pickerelweed, one which makes at least as much sense as the association between the shape of the leaves and the shape of the pike-weapon or pike-food. According to a blog post by Ken Moore, a North Carolina blogger, “the common name, pickerelweed, refers to the pickerel fish, which feed along the edges of such emergent aquatic vegetation.” While I’ve not independently corroborated Moore’s research, this ecologically based derivation makes intuitive sense as well; the namers of things were much closer to the natural world than we are; it seems plausible that they would have named the pickerelweed after its ecological associate, the pickerel fish.

Moore’s source appears to be Paul Green’s Plant Book, which sounds delightful, as it apparently contains

daily observations and conversations with the local folks of the Cape Fear River valley, from Chapel Hill down through Lillington, Fayetteville and beyond. Plants take on a special dimension when accompanied with past and present human association.

Hear, hear! And here is a lovely old illustration of P. cordata from a 19th-century book on lilies that I found on Wikipedia:

from Les liliacées by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Paris, 1802-1816. Stipple-engraving in colour finished by hand after Pierre-Joseph Redouté, engraved by J. Chailly (sheet 342 x 515 mm, under passe-partout).

from Les liliacées by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Paris, 1802-1816. Stipple-engraving in colour finished by hand after Pierre-Joseph Redouté, engraved by J. Chailly (sheet 342 x 515 mm, under passe-partout).

As the Wikipedia entry tells us, the generic name of this plant was applied by Linnaeus himself, in honor of Giulio Pontedera, an Italian botanist from Padua who, ironically, did not accept Linnaeus’s system of binomial nomenclature. The italian Wikipedia entry tells us that he is responsible for discovering and naming several plant species (“A lui si deve la scoperta e classificazione di diverse specie di piante; la famiglia botanica delle Pontederiaceae è a lui dedicata.”), although the entry doesn’t tell us which species he discovered, or whether they retain the names he gave them, since he rejected Linnaean naming conventions.

The specific epithet, cordata, means “heart-shaped,” which refers to the leaves. (Please don’t confuse it with the phylum name chordata, which means, basically “having a notochord“; these plants may look like they have a heart [they wear it on their leaves], but they don’t have a nervous system.) Don’t rely on the heart-shaped leaf base, though; the leaves can have a distinctly heart-shaped base, or it can be rounded. It’s far easier to ID the plant by its pickerel-shaped spike.

So pick your favorite explanation for the “pickerel” in pickerelweed: either it’s the pike/spike of the flowers, the pike/spike of the leaves, or the pike/pickerel that browses in and around its feet! Either way, it’s one of the prettiest flowers in the wetlands.

If you’re interested in more details about pickerelweed, I recommend the following links:

* Disclaimer for the FTC: I bought my own copy of all the dictionaries cited in this article. No one gave me anything, either in money, consideration, or in kind, for this article.

**Sorry, I don’t have access to the special phonetic characters that should be there, the high-set mark for primary stress, the low-set mark for secondary stress, or the e with a horizontal bar over it that shows how to pronounce that tongue-twister “weed”; if you want to see them, check out the online definition provided by MW. For the same reason, I have not bothered to replicate the phonetic spellings from AH either.

The gen(i)us of family names

Now that we have the 5 kingdoms of life straightened out (Bacteria, Protoctista, Animalia, Plantae, and Fungi), it’s time to move on in my explanation/exploration of scientific nomenclature. One of the things that had always puzzled me about the naming of things was how many different levels of organization there are. This burgeoning complexity is the result of the recent rise in cladistics and phylogenetics, which has forced biologists to rethink the good old modified Linnean system that had served us so well until, say, the 1960s. That system, with its easily memorized hierarchy (King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) has now been augmented with infraorders, superorders, superfamilies, and many more interstitial groupings.

This profusion of classificatory niches does cause confusion to the uninitiated. Back when I first started my bird study course through the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, I was prompted to browse through my bird guide to see what I could learn. I was puzzled by the term Laridae, for instance, which it turns out works just fine in the good old Linnaean system. It’s just the taxon at the family level comprising gulls, terns, and skimmers. Of course, because certain gulls are more like other gulls than certain other gulls are, we can’t just have one genus for gulls. We have several genera, all grouped into a subfamily, Larinae. So your North American black-backed gulls are both in the genus Larus, while your kittiwakes are in the genus Rissa. Similarly, the various noddies, small terns, large terns, typical terns, etc., are grouped into another subfamily, Sterninae, in the family Laridae.

And, as long as we’re dealing with family levels, there’s a handy trick we can use to keep these scientific names more user friendly: just lowercase the family name (in this case Laridae) and change the ending– -idae for animals, or -aceae for plants (the spelling of which trips up numerous writers)–to -d or -ds. Voilà: a much easier handle to use as you see fit. The Bromeliaceae, for example, become the familiar bromeliads; the Centrarchidae (black bass, sunfish, crappies) become the centrarchids; the aforementioned Laridae (represented here by a cooperative Heermann’s Gull I photographed on a visit to the Monterey Bay aquarium in February), become the larids.

As with all systems that promise to simplify your life, though, there are some caveats. For instance, you can’t do this on the genus level: parulids as a quasi-vernacular name for the family Parulidae (New World warblers) is fine, but as a name for the genus Parula (4 species, among them Northern Parula, Tropical Parula, Crescent-chested Warbler, and Flame-throated Warbler), for example, it doesn’t work. According to my bible on matters scientificoeditorial, one should

avoid applying the ‘id’ or ‘ids’ endings used for families to genera. Also avoid applying a plural ending to a scientific genus name; the scientific name of the genus is always singular. (Section, page 350)

So, how do you keep track of all these taxa? How do you know whether you’re dealing with a genus name, a specific epithet, an order, or some newfangled interstitial creation like an infraorder? Well, there’s a website for that. (As soon as “there’s an app for that,” I’ll let you know. The various taxonomy apps I’ve seen so far are pretty 1.0; the best of the bunch, called simply KPCOFGS, is pretty minimal and, while YMMV, the search times can be quite a bit longer than the developer claims. I’m still waiting for a user-friendly iBird-type app with a more comprehensive taxonomy listing than North American avifauna.)

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