Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Mouse tales

Mice are kind of ubiquitous, and it's easy to think of them as all being pretty much the same, but the family they comprise -- Muridae -- contains no fewer than 870 different species.

And new ones are being discovered all the time, including the Sulawesi snouter, Hyorhinomys stuempkei.  It's a peculiar-looking little thing, with a pointy nose and incisors long even for a rodent, and is (as far as we know) only found in one location on the slopes of Mount Daro in northern Sulawesi.

Hyorhinomys stuempkei [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Kevin C Rowe and Museum Victoria, Hyorhinomys07, CC BY-SA 4.0]

But the reason the topic comes up isn't mice, nor even anything about this particular mouse's evolutionary history, behavior, or physiology.  

It's about its name.

Both its common name of "snouter" and the species name, stuempkei, come from zoologist Harald Stümpke and his most famous work, The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades, an exhaustive study of Order RhinogradentiaThe members of the order lived on a small archipelago in the Pacific Ocean which had no human occupants.  However, the island chain was known to the natives of nearby islands, who gave each of the eighteen islands their names (Annoorussawubbissy, Awkoavussa, Hiddudify, Koavussa, Lowlukha, Lownunnoia, Mara, Miroovilly, Mittuddinna, Naty, Nawissy, Noorubbissy, Osovitissy, Ownavussa, Owsuddowsa, Shanelukha, Towteng-Awko, and Vinsy; the entire chain was called Hyiyiyi).  Other than occasional visits from Polynesians, the first person to go there and do a thorough mapping of the archipelago was Swedish explorer Einar Petterson-Skämtkvist in the 1940s, but it fell to Stümpke to do a biological survey.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end well.  Stümpke's book is the only remnant of them that survives.  Stümpke and his assistants, along with all the snouters they studied, were wiped out by nuclear bomb testing on a nearby atoll.  Fortunately, before his death he'd mailed a proof copy of his manuscript to German zoologist Gerolf Steiner, or we might not know anything about these unique mammals at all.

Sad story, yes?

However, if by now you are -- pardon the expression -- smelling a rat, you're not alone.

Some questions you might be asking yourself:

  1. If all the "rhinogrades" were wiped out, where did the "Sulawesi snouter" come from?
  2. And how can one be from Sulawesi if they all lived on the archipelago of Hyiyiyi?
  3. Those island names don't sound very Polynesian.  ("Annoorussawubbissy"?  Really?)
  4. Then there's "Hyiyiyi," which is the noise an elderly family friend used to make when he was annoyed.
  5. How come you never hear anything about an entire group of zoologists being killed in the bomb testing?
  6. Aren't all mice in Order Rodentia?  Where the hell did Order Rhinogradentia come from?
  7. I mean seriously, what the fuck?

The truth is that the entire thing -- the mysterious island chain of Hyiyiyi, both Harald Stümpke and the intrepid Einar Petterson-Skämtkvist, Order Rhinogradentia and the book detailing their biology, and the tragic bomb test that wiped all of 'em out -- were the invention of Gerolf Steiner (who was a very real biologist with a puckish sense of humor).  However, not only were some people taken in by the joke at the time, Order Rhinogradentia (and the fictitious Harald Stümpke) still occasionally find their way into real publications -- sometimes without any notes making it clear that neither one exists.

Fortunately, by now most zoologists know about Steiner's role in the story, so it's unlikely anyone these days is really taken in by it.

However, in celebration of one of the most elaborate pranks in the history of biology, a recently-discovered (real) mouse species on Sulawesi was named by its discoverer, zoologist Jacob Esselstyn, not after Steiner, but after the fictitious Stümpke!  And even its common name -- the Sulawesi snouter -- is an hommage to Steiner and his masterful monograph.

Keep this story in mind if you ever are inclined to think of scientists as humorless, dry-as-dust pedants.


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