I was at Ridgefield a few weeks back, hiking the Carty Unit, when I stopped to watch a small flock of chickadee-dee-dees that was working its way through the forest. I backtracked a bit to watch them as they moved from tree to tree when I heard a rustling in the leaves just off the trail.
Most likely garter snakes moving about the forest floor, I had seen half-a-dozen the week before, but today’s rustler was this turtle. It wasn’t a painted turtle, the most common turtle here, so I was excited to see it. I’m not that up on the turtles of the Northwest since you don’t see them that often, but I knew it was a species that was new to me.
And since it was new to me, I figured it was new to science as well.
Since I was the one to discover it, I would have the privilege of naming it. As with such past honors, I let Templeton and Scout each come up with a suggestion and then I choose between the two names. To avoid claims of bias, I have them submit their choices anonymously in sealed envelopes.
I learned to have the submissions anonymous the hard way. It takes a surprising amount of belly rubs and head scratches to soothe the injured psyche of my little ones.
To aid them in their naming process, I showed them the pictures I took of the turtle, including views from many angles, and described in detail the entire encounter. Templeton asked for and received some natural history books and field guides and set off to study, taking detailed notes, muttering to himself, making funny faces as he thought up ever more fanciful names.
Scout requested and received only one book, my PowerBook. She visited some natural history sites and herpetology sites and even a site called Google. Scout says it’s useful for more than just looking up turtle info, you can find local suppliers of scrod, for example, which perked up Templeton’s ears right away.
After they each did their copious research, I received two envelopes slipped under my office door. And here are the suggested names for this hitherto unknown species of turtle:
Good thing I kept the submission process anonymous.
I gathered the little ones together, each convinced that their name would be selected. I broke the news gently to them that while these would each be fantastic names for dinosaurs (each equally fantastic names mind you, to avoid claims of bias), it wasn’t quite right for a little turtle.
They both got a little indignant and ran back to the pictures of the turtle.
“Look at those claws, they’re enormous!”
“Look at those powerful jaws, whole cities could be destroyed!”
“Even a meteorite couldn’t penetrate that massive shell!”
I tried to explain how the close-up photos made the turtle look enormous, but in reality I could have easily picked it up in my hands, but the cats were not so easily convinced. Eventually we agreed to pick a new name, the three of us all together, and after many hours of discussion settled upon a name:
It’s not fire-breathing nor a terrible terrapin, but before you think less of me for allowing such a name, listen, when you’ve been discussing the name with those two for so long, they have a way of ganging up on you and after a while up is down and you’re not sure what you believe anymore.
At least we had a name.
After submitting our name to the appropriate scientific bodies, we received a rather abrupt (if not rude) reply telling us that we had not discovered a new species, just an introduced one, that someone likely dropped off their pet turtle when they got bored with it. And also that we should stop sending in silly names for creatures that we find, since they always turn out to be introduced species.
It’s true that our noxious belching frog turned out to be a bullfrog, and that our mutant space beaver turned out to be a nutria. And our polyphonic demonic blackbird turned out to be a starling.
But one of these days, we’ll be proved right, and scientists and citizens alike will have to recognize the yellow-bellied howling sasquatch for what it is: a yellow-bellied howling sasquatch.