Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Changing Words for Birds

There's a growing movement in the United States focused on changing things likeplace names that have, or are connected to, racist or sexist themes.  These include institutional names like Fort Bragg (why would the Army name a post for Confederate General Braxton Bragg in the first place? Have they READ the guy's combat record?) and localities like Coon Lake in Washington state, now Howard Lake.

Things are moving slower, with more debate, in areas like the names of animals. Concerning birds especially, there's been some movement pushed by several scientific and volunteer bodies to change  some comon names. McCown's longspur has been renamed because McCown was an ornithologist but also a Confederate general. (Photo below bythe Smithsonian.)

Hammond's flycatcher will go soon: Hammond was a Surgeon General who late in the 1800s was still writing that "Indians and Negroes" were subhuman. Scott's oriole, named for General Winfield Scott, despised by Native Americans for directing the forced relocation called the Trail of Tears, may go next. Ornithologists are arguing over the iconic Audubon, a scientific giant who, among other highly offensive actions, once traded slaves. There's a practical reason to not change all the challenged names abruptly: they're how birders and everyone else outside ornithology distinguish birds.   Changes require education and updating of much documentation. 

Some non-bird terms like "squawfish" and "gypsy moth" are also officially out, and oceanographer Kim Martini launched an effort in 2019 urging scientists and media to stop using "Bobbit worm" for a polychaete also known as the sand striker. The overall movement to rename species has been slow, though, because neither governments nor scientific bodies have agreed on what guidelines to apply. It's not just an American problem: in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and New Caledonia, the presence of dozens of indigenous languages makes it a huge challenge to even identify the "local" names. so almost all of the names applied by Western scientists are still in place in scientific and general literature.

A topic that has been raised, if rarely so far, is changing binomial scientific names like Rhynchophanes mccownii. Binomials are supposed to be fixed, forever, for scientific precision. They allow, say, a scientist in Tahiti in 2021 to know exactly what species was meant by an English naturalist in 1780. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) doesn't even have a process for this. Scientists have stopped using names the ICZN has deemed inaccurate (e.g., Linnaeus' Homo ferus, or wild man) or which are no longer valid because the species has been reclassified, but there are procedures for that.

It's easier with modern discoveries: Western scientists have begun asking indigenous people for names (as with the amphibian Tiktaalik rosae, where the genus was suggested by Inuit elders in Nunavut [it's an Inuktitut word for a local fish English-speakers call burbot]), and of course scientists in Africa, Asia, and South America have long been working local names into the binomials.

There's a lot to work out.

Don't forget: now available in all formats! 


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Max Salas's Beautiful Dunk Sculpture

I finally got my hands on a Max Salas Dunkleosteus terrelli sculpture, one of the specimens I’ve always wanted.  This limited-production resin kit may not be the most accurate Dunk representation, but it is certainly a memorable one. I don’t know who assembled and painted this example. The kit is out of production.

Salas made some interesting conjectures about that the Dunk looked like.  The relatively slim, vertically arched body, combined with a prominent forehead and low dorsal, made me think of a cetacean, somewhat similar to an elongated dwarf sperm whale.

Granted, there are Dunk details we don’t know, and there were more when this sculpture was made (mine is dated 2008). Still, there are some questionable choices concerning the anatomy. The fins look reasonable, although I personally suspect the dorsal was bigger. The small second dorsal fin is a conjecture. No other Dunk reconstruction I can find has it, and neither do any other placoderms, including those like Cocosteus cuspidatus and Titanichthys agassizi used to support conjectures about the Dunk's body. The eel-like tail used on the model was once a common idea but today is losing favor compared to a more shark-like tail. There are no lips, a feature still debated although the pro-lip view is gaining ground and makes more sense to me for streamlining.  

Now, for the artistic side: it’s beautiful. The stock kit photo (first photo below) has the armor solid-colored, and the whole animal, with its complex pattern, is gorgeous.  On my copy, it looks like the owner went for an easier approach, so the armor is blended in. The sculpt conveys life and motion in a way so many others (including more technically accurate ones) often fail to do. This thing LOOKS like it’s hunting you down, and you won’t have a prayer…

Matt Bille
Twitter: MattWriter
NEW BOOK: https://www.amazon.com/Books-Beasts-Cryptozoologists-Library/dp/1955471274

Saturday, December 18, 2021

New Species and Of Books and Beasts update

 I enjoy posting on new species, and this paper bearing news from the tropical island of Sulawesi is an interesting one. Scientists surveying the shrews of this very large (174,600 square km) island collected over 1,300 specimens of shrews. When the hard work of taxonomy started, it took years to sort them out.  There were 21 species, an astonishing 14 of them new. The resulting paper named more species than any single paper in the last 90 years. Most people consider shrews unimportant at best and annoying at worst, and they (the shrews) committed the serious offense of "starring" in one of the worst monster movies ever made.  

Meanwhile, Of Books and Beasts is getting some very good feedback (not all posted on Amazon reviews yet, but trust me) and is now on Amazon and B&N as well as being available from the 
publisher. Please buy, enjoy, and review!.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

And here it is! Of Books and Beasts

 I waited a bit on posting this until the book was widely available. Notw it's on B&N and Amazon,and in the formats for their e-readers, andit's time to celebrate!  


The first-ever guide to the books of cryptozoology, related sciences, and fiction.  Enjoy! Give feedback! Post reviews! (please) Hangar 1 Publishing did a great job, and I'm proud of it.