03 January 2013

Building or beast?

There are different schools of thought about giving a species its scientific name, and what that scientific name should reflect. Personally, I like scientific names that refer to some feature of the organisms. But many species are named in honor of a person. But particularly for older species, it can be hard to track down who that person was.

I was working on a presentation about sand crabs, and one of the sand crabs in the Gulf of Mexico is Lepidopa websteri. I went looking for the original description (Benedict, 1903), and found a terse, single line:

Named for the collector, Prof. H. E. Webster.

I thought having only initials instead of first and second names might make this person tricky to find, but it was easier than I expected. A little searching on Google Scholar found the name “Prof. H. E. Webster” was most often associated with Union College. When I added the name of the university into the mix, I was surprised to learn that this gentleman, Harrison Edwin Webster, was prominent enough to rate a New York Times obituary.

Having the full name led me to information about his work at the university. Wayne Somers, editor of the Union College Encyclopedia, had this to say:

He was an interesting guy who’s hard to summarize, but unfortunately he wasn’t a very good president(.) He fought in the Civil War, and he was the only scientist to become a college president at Union. His specialty was sea worms.

I can just imagine how this fellow, out collecting worms on a beach, might have stumbled across this crab accidentally. The original specimen was reported on in 1879 under a different name (Lepidopa venusta), before Webster became the university president (1888). But when the species was given the name it bears now, Webster’s tenure at Union College had already come and gone. It seems funny to name a species after someone who seems to have been rather prominent in his field without mentioning some of his achievements.

The Somer quote above from a page describing Webster Hall, previously a library and now student residence.

Which would you have be your namesake? A building or an obscure species?


Benedict JE. 1903. Revision of the Crustacea of the genus Lepidopa. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 26: 889-895.

Webster House photo from here.

1 comment:

jess said...

I had a taxonomist friend in college who discovered so many new species that he complained about running out of names for them. I successfully lobbied him to name one after me, so I now have a small black beetle (of course) bearing my surname. I find this completely delightful and I LOVE telling people about it.