The Special-Ness Of Species

I’ll be away volunteering for the next few days at several conferences in a row (check out the work of the Media140 Perth team here - there’s a Live Stream of the days featured on the Media140 Site). In the meantime, here’s an reworked older post with some new additions. I’ll be back blogging as usual next week. 

By the way – if you’re a skeptic in Bunbury, West Australia - check out South West Skeptics!

Nearly fifteen years ago, I began my first degree… in Agriculture. This always astonishes my students, who don’t expect their English teacher to be able to give advice on Biology homework or have the ability to rattle off the taxonomic ranks of ‘Kingdom-Phylum-Division-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species’ on command.

I changed my major for several reasons but I maintained my interest in science via degrees in Philosophy, Education and Psychology. Thus I learned about Darwin’s contribution to taxonomy… and Leibniz’s unicorn. Imagination, dedication and passion are common elements with the desire to accurately ascertain and classify the species of the world – and from what I’ve seen, it can also direct people towards hoaxed creations and cryptozoology or even artistic interpretations of what a new species could be like.

Creativity in biological nomenclature was something I learned about in the mid-90s, when I learned of a news report on a beetle named after Darth Vader. A genuine article, a newly-discovered beetle; indeed the product of research and study… so-called for his shiny head with a slit across the front, like the Sith Lord’s helmet – Agathidium vaderi.

WIRED Leibniz's unicorn

It doesn’t stop there though. What about a spider called Draculoides bramstokeri? Or the sand-crab Albunea groeningi, named after Matt ‘The Simpsons’ Groening? A big winner in terms of nomenclature nods would have to be Frank Zappa, who has at least five different species named after him… one because the orb-weaver spider, Pachygnatha zappa, featuring abdominal marking that resembles his mustache. Oh, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has (yeah, you guessed it) an endangered rabbit named after him.

Maybe like Rimmer of Red Dwarf, you love the classics of ‘Mozart, Mendelssohn and Motorhead‘? There’s at least three species named after Mozart, like the Mozartella beethoveni (an encyrtid wasp). Motorhead’s Lenny Kilmister has a 428-million year old fossil polychaete that was named after him in 2006 , called Kalloprion kilmisteri.

I often get skinks brought into the house by my helpful cats, although I’ve never inquired as to whether it’s a ‘Eroticoscincus‘ or the ‘sexy skink’ that they’re trying to show me… and since JRR Tolkien’s birthday on the 3rd of January, you might like to check out Leucothoe tolkieni, an amphipod named after him, just one dedicated to him amongst dozens of species based on his fictional characters.

My personal favourite? Baru darrowi, a large fossilised Australian crocodile — named after Paul Darrow who played Avon in Blake’s Seven – pretty apt considering his idea of diplomacy would well match that of a crocodile…

It’s enough to give you genus-envy, isn’t it?

They’re fantastic achievements – finding new species, naming them and being a part of the wonder of nature. But it also makes you ponder — what about the fakes? Why do we allow ourselves to be fooled by preposterous claims of new species that push the boundaries of reality — like Leibniz’s unicorn, Phineas Taylor Barnum’s much-toted Feejee Mermaid or the Jackalope (which I saw tucked away on the side stage during a David Bowie tour, as their tour mascot)?

I suppose it’s to do with the promises of acclaim and wonder that comes with finding something new, as well as the profit and even sometimes amusement that can be had. Some claims are made in all honest hope, some are deliberate hoaxes, some can be artistic interpretations that marries science, art and the fantastic. I like to think that all of them can teach us valuable lessons in regards to the scientific method.

Such a lesson was produced by William Willers, who created the Centaur of Volosin the 1980s, from the bones of a human and a Shetland pony. This centaur creation is intended to be a teaching tool; biology professor Dr Neil Greenbergand art professor Beauvais Lyons are promoting skepticism via displaying it at the University of Tennessee:

The hoax is intended to draw attention to the mythological and poetic dimensions of science and history, and to remind students not to believe everything they see or read. “The Centaur Excavations at Volos” is staged like an authentic exhibition, depicting a “centaur” burial and a group of related ceramics.

Since I’m an Australian, I often hear about Australian cryptozoological claims (especially from a few friends who live in the rural areas of the state) such as the Yowie and (even now!) surviving thylacines - which led the late Steve Irwin to try to track some evidence of their survival. These are a great many world-wide examples of efforts to seek species that have never had any convincing proof for them or are feared extinct. You can see some of the recent thylacine ‘finds’ documented over on Doubtful News.

A few years back I attended the traveling exhibition (if ‘exhibition’ can also mean ‘selling multiple copies of prints on the walls’) of  The Art of Dr Seuss, which revealed to me how ‘undiscovered species’ provokes the muse as well as credulous claims. They’re not the ORIGINAL Seuss artworks, but copies (unlike the picture featured here):

Surreal artwork like ‘Every Girl Needs a Unicorn‘ and ‘Pink Tufted Small Beast in a Night Landscape … and er, the ‘Martini Bird‘?… nod to the fantastic imaginings that come from the ‘what if’ about species. The basis of these quirky species ‘hoaxes’ in the name of art come from Theodore ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel’s use of animal bones and horns in his ‘Unorthodox Taxidermy‘ series. An important element are the donated beaks, antlers and horns of deceased animals by his father, who was a superintendent of the Forest Park Zoo.

On Ebay, three ‘unorthodox taxidermy’ originals by Seuss have been advertised - US $1,000,000.00! - with an additional bonus of a trip to collect them:

Do not mistake these produced originals for the modern day reproductions. This is the world’s only known complete collection of these creatures; this set of three was purchased in the late 1930’s and has remained intact. Created by Dr. Seuss, these sculptures were first carved from wood, then hand painted and mounted onto small plaques.

…Due to the delicate nature of the sculptures, the winner of this rare collection and a guest will be flown to the Chateau where the buyer can oversee the packing, and transport the pieces safely away.  Travel and lodging for three nights in the Castle’s Romantic and luxerious Tower suite is included courtesy of Animazing Gallery. This is a trip fit for a “king”.

Curios like the ‘Kangaroo Bird’ and the ‘semi-normal Green-Lidded Fawn’ are made of old bones, antlers and cast resin. They seem to have walked out of one of the children’s books Seuss created… probably chewing the pages as they went.

In a similar vein, I was told of the New York artist Juan Cabana who actively creates hoax Feejee mermaids, based on Barnam’s brainchild, and sells them — with unknown persons taking photo of his art on shorelines, resulting in a newspaper reporting erroneously how his art ‘washed up’ as evidence of a new species! An inspired fake – with a faked-finding – creating hoaxed headlines? Are you dizzy yet?

The scientific value of finding a new species is unquestioned — but a “find” could be about profit alone. However, I maintain that the historical and aesthetic value we gain from the study of pseudo-species and the continuing searches for the missing links / hidden creatures / brand new mutations may take us where no label has gone before…

… but I’m still skeptical about saving daffodils from fake animals. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Monster Talk podcast!

References:

Bartholomew, R., and Radford, B. (2003). Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. Prometheus Books, New York.

Roesch, B.S., and Moore, J.L. (2002). Cryptozoology. In Skeptic’s Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, ed. Michael Shermer. ABC-Clio, New York.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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