Happy 50th Birthday Ballocephala verrucospora

I’ve posted quite a few bits from John Wright’s wonderful “The Naming of the Shrew” . Quite a fewin fact.  It is quite the treasure trove of entertaining and informative material. I have taken the liberty of yet another post to mark the 50th Anniversary of the discovery of a new species of fungus upon a tiny creature in sheep dung. I am sure you are all well aware of this occasion, but just to recap:

Mike Richardson is another such enthusiast. A fellow devotee of fungi, he and I were sharing an Indian meal in an Edinburgh restaurant one evening when he told me the story of Ballocephala verrucospora. Back in the late sixties, he was attending his son’s first birthday party, something which, frankly, can be a bit of a trial for the adults tasked with keeping the little darlings happy. Unable to face a gruelling afternoon of cake and tears, he decided to go for a walk instead. It took him to the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, where he had only sheep for company. Where there are sheep there are sheep droppings, and knowing that sheep droppings can be more interesting than most people might suspect, he took some home to incubate. A few days later, Mike noticed some small white clumps on the surface of the droppings. Studying his treasures with the help of a dissecting microscope, he discovered that these white clumps were growing from the surface of deceased tardigrades. A tardigrade (its name means ‘slow walker’) is a tiny creature (1.5 millimetres long makes one a giant of the clan), with eight short, fat legs and an ambling gait that has provided it with the common name of ‘water bear’– the ‘water’ part coming from its preference for damp habitats. Mike likes tardigrades (who wouldn’t?), but it was the white clumps that interested him because they were a fungus. Many small creatures can end up as a fungus’s dinner, consumed by the thread-like hyphae that invade their bodies and suck out their precious bodily fluids. A search of the literature enabled Mike to assign the fungus to an existing genus, Ballocephala. But he noticed that its spores were larger than those of the only species known at that time, and were covered in little warts. This and other considerations led Mike to believe at first that he had an undescribed variety of Ballocephala sphaerospora on his hands. However, a fellow mycologist was sure that the find was sufficiently distinct to constitute a new species.


An exciting development, one must surely agree, and Wrights takes us through what happened next:

Mike’s publication of his new species followed the typical pattern that had been used for more than a century (although such a publication is likely to be considerably more complex nowadays than when Mike was writing back in 1970). His paper (referred to as a ‘protologue’ because it is the first word on a species*) begins with an introduction, explaining why he considers his find to be a new species. Then comes the description proper, starting with the heading: ‘Ballocephala verrucospora sp.nov.’ Judith Winston in Describing Specieswrote that while some people approach the naming of a new species with trepidation, others are like expectant parents, asking friends for suggestions and making lists of good candidates. Ballocephala was the name already given to the genus by Charles Drechsler in 1951. It means ‘head thrower’, a reference to the way in which the packet containing the spores (the sporangium) is released by being thrown by the arm-like sporangiophore. The specific epithet verrucospora was provided by Mike himself and simply means ‘warty spores’. This was a good choice, because it describes one of the characters that ‘differentiates’ this species from B. sphaerospora, although there is no rule to say that a specific epithet must represent a difference (differentia in the trade, see here). The abbreviation ‘sp. nov.’ stand for species nova or ‘new species’. Because it is a new species there is no reference to previous descriptions or authors, as would have been necessary had he been reviewing an existing species. In a nice piece of conventional modesty, now dispensed with, Mike does not cite his own name – that is for later writers to do. The next part of the description begins: ‘Hyphae hyalinae, inclusae in corpore hospitis, constantes de cellis secedentibus 20-40 x 10-12 µm diam. Sporangiophora crescentia per superficiem dorsi hospitalis, 50-150 µm alta x 5-7 µm diam, septata solum AD basem

Don’t worry if your Latin is a little rusty, Wright demystifies it beautifully, and introduces what, to me, was a new meaning of the word “diagnosis”:

This is the beginning of the Latin description, which is one hundred words in this case but could be shorter or longer. For a mycologist, even one whose Latin is a hazy memory from school, this description is not too difficult to understand. The Latin of biology is quite different from that of Ancient Rome and different again from Church Latin. It is a highly stylised language all of its own, brimming with specialist Latinised terms that would make Mike’s description almost completely incomprehensible to Cicero. Hyphae hyalinae means something like ‘glassy web’, but here a mycologist would understand it to mean that the hollow fibres (hyphae) that are the ‘cells’ of the fungus are transparent (hyaline). All branches of biology have developed their own specialised nouns and adjectives, usually derived from Greek or Latin, so a description written by a zoologist might make little sense to a mycologist or botanist.

As is traditional, the description is repeated in English translation: ‘Hyphae hyaline, internal in the body of the host, composed of disjointed cells 20–40 x 10–12 µm diam. Sporangiophores growing through the dorsal surface of the host, 50–150 µm high x 5–7 µm diam, septate only at the base.’ What Mike provides is a ‘description’, but he could have given us a description and something called a ‘diagnosis’, or even just a diagnosis. Diagnoses explain what is sufficiently different about the species in question to qualify it for species status. They can be extremely short. For example, if all that differentiated a new species of rabbit from others in its genus was that it was blue, then ‘blue’, would be a sufficient diagnosis. A diagnosis has long been required in zoology but is optional in botany and mycology, where either or both are sufficient.*

Below the description comes this line: ‘Habitat parasitus in Tardigradis (Macrobiotus?). In fimo ovino, West Kip (550 m), Midlothian, Scotland, II. i. 1969. Typus IMI 148042.’ This tells us the habitat – parasitic on tardigrades; that the tardigrade could possibly be a member of the genus Macrobiotus, and that it was found in sheep’s dung (‘In fimo ovino’). It also states where it was found. ‘Typus IMI 148042’ is very important. It tells anyone who needs to check on the original specimens studied by Mike where they can find them – in this case at the International Mycological Institute, reference number 148042. More on ‘types’ later (see here). Just before ‘Typus’ is ‘11. i. 1969’. This is the date on which the specimens were discovered and also, of course, someone’s birthday

So, happy 51st birthday Mr Richardson Jnr and happy 50th birthday to Ballocephala verrucospora

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