Wednesday, April 7, 2010


If you go on the Internet, you may or may not have seen this image that is making the rounds through mainstream online media:

Apparently this got posted to Reddit in which people commenced with their "OMG WHAT IS THIS KILL IT WITH FIREing" that you may or may not be familiar with.  You, gentle reader, almost certainly thought, "Pish posh, anyone can clearly see that is a giant sea isopod they've strung up so rudely on boat...stuff."  If you didn't, that's okay, you still have my eternal gratitude for reading this. 

Continuing on, the good folks at Deep Sea News came to the rescue and educated people hard; you can read the chronicle here, in which they staunchly defend our brave isopod from the slander of the Internet.  However, rampant misinformation of the occasionally-amusing type is still being spread so your friendly Uncle A. (<--me) is here to learn you even HARDER.

-Despite what you may have heard on AOL giant sea isopods are not roaches.  The lowest taxonomic level to which they both belong is the phylum Arthopoda.  

To put that in perspective, humans and dogs are closer together on the taxonomic tree (we both belong to the Mammalia class) than giant isopods (Bathynomus) and cockroaches (Blattaria) are.  Organisms closer to isopods include the usual restaurant suspects (crabs, lobster, shrimp) krill and the like.

Taco has nothing on Lord Isopod.

If you want to make my veiny heart swell with pride, go read this introduction to the taxonomic hierarchy as it is used in biology.  For the rest of you, here's a crash course that involves me borrowing images from the aforementioned site.

HERE IS A DIAGRAM AND FLASHBACK TO 7TH GRADE SCIENCE CLASS.  Organisms are divided into six large categories, called kingdoms or regna: 

1) Animalia (mammals, insects, primates) 
2) Plantae (flowers, trees) 
3) Fungi (mushrooms, mold) 
4) Protista (amoeba, the awesomeness of slime molds, algae, diatoms) 
5) Archaea (most famous for extremophiles, i.e. the blue/green stuff that lives in hot springs in Yellowstone, the things that live your in guts RIGHT NOW!!!1)  
6) Bacteria (most famous as pathogens; the LIVE ACTIVE CULTURES advertised on yogurt).  Yes, six; I'm from the U.S. so we'll be dealing with the U.S. system.

Organisms are classified by a number of different characteristics as being more or less similar to one another in terms of evolutionary biology.  The further down you go on the taxonomic staircase, the more specific you are.  For example, the taxonomy of a yellow-bellied marmot, a creature near and dear to my heart (SPOKANE MARMOT POPULATION HOLLA), would look something like this:

 Spokane's greatest natural resource, upping property AWESOME values by 
merely existing.  HATERS GONNA HATE
Image: Rajah Bose of The Spokesman-Review
KINGDOM: Animalia (it's an animal)
PHYLUM: Chordata (it has a spine)
CLASS: Mammalia (it is a mammal; it gives birth to live young and 
            breastfeeds them) 
ORDER: Rodentia (it is a rodent, which are characterized by 
             having by two sets of continuously growing incisors 
             which must be kept short by gnawing on stuff).  
             Notice that humans diverged from marmots below 
             the CLASS level; until then we're together.   
FAMILY: Sciuridae (it is a squirrel)
SUBFAMILY: Xerinae (it is a ground squirrel)
GENUS: Marmota (it is a marmot)
SUBGENUS: Petromarmota (it is a marmot that lives in 
                  rocky areas)
SPECIES: Marmot flaviventris

If there are subspecies, they go there at the bottom.  But yes, if you want to know what a given organism is most closely related to, CONSULT YOUR TAXONOMY!  For fish we have the venerable FishBase as a resource for this.  

Taxonomy lets you do things like find out that the langostino lobster in Long John Silver's "Lobster Bites" are not actually lobster, but a "squat lobster".  Which look are related to porcelain crabs and hermit crabs, which are also not actually true crabs. ... ...awkward.  Does it make them any less tasty?  No, but they're still not lobsters.

Same with the obligatory market labeling of certain types of catfish as "tra" or "basa" courtesy the shining paragon of science and rationality that is Senator Trent Lott; I am embarrassed to have his state border my own, but it's not like Louisianan politicians aren't embarrassing me/themselves/the entire state on their own.  This was done in an effort to appease U.S. catfish farmers who felt that they were being undercut.  

I have personally seen websites and store displays describe basa and tra as "similar to catfish".  This is dead wrong, because BASA AND TRA ARE CATFISH.  Yes, they belong to the Pangasiidae family of catfish, whereas the catfish native to North America are from the Ictaluridae family.  This does not make them "not catfish", however; ALL fish that belong to order Siluriformes.

Chum (aka keta or dog) salmon with some dude.  You may see these guys marketed under the name "silverbrite" because nothing says "tasty fish" like something that sounds like it's silverware cleaning product.  Especially since the fish is very clearly silver.
I will stop now, because I could go on for days about my anger regarding the "market" names of fish and nobody wants that (yet).

Actually, this brings up something else that I'm sure all of you know, but I'm going to throw it out there.  Whenever there are pictures circulating on the Internet (possibly forwards from your great-aunt) of various creatures, don't necessarily believe the caption.  Examples include deep-sea creatures allegedly washed up by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 (HINT: Tsunami do not work that way) and well, plenty of others.  

One my mother asked me about described an animal in a picture as a "giant catfish" when it was actually a juvenile whale shark (READ: catfish do not look like whale sharks and whale sharks are very distinctive).

E-mail forwards are not necessarily known for their standards to accuracy so I would suggest applying a healthy degree of skepticism and seeking further information from reliable sources whenever one receives such things.

*=Yes, I am aware that the biological taxonomy hierarchy is changing/the one I've provided may not be 100% correct at this moment in time.  However, I figure that this breakdown would be the most useful while avoiding splitting hairs about microbiology/clades/etc.

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