Stung – by a jelly?

Pelagia noctiluca, also known as the purple stinger

Pelagia noctiluca, also known as the purple stinger [Photo © Hans Hillewaert CC BY-SA 4.0]

The evolution of popular animal names
by Colin McIntosh
If you thought the risk of being injured by a coloured dessert usually found at children’s parties was negligible, you’re right. These jellies sting – and I have the scars to prove it.
My attacker, Pelagia noctiluca, is one of the most venemous in the Med, and there was a swarm of them around Ibiza in October. You may call it a jellyfish, but scientists nowadays avoid the word, preferring instead the term jelly. Although it sounds like an informal way of referring to these evil stingers, it is actually more scientifically correct, because, of course, jellyfish are not fish.
It’s all part of the increasing trend towards the SC: the scientifically correct. You’ve probably heard of politically correct, where traditional or old-fashioned ways of referring to things or people are avoided so as not to cause offence. Here we’re talking about avoiding traditional, sometimes folksy, ways of referring to animals because they’re unscientific or confusing. Do you remember koala bears? Although cuddly, they’re not bears, so they’re now called koalas. Orca were once known almost exclusively as killer whales. Now, though, the whale has been dropped (they’re more closely related to dolphins); and the killer part is also something we prefer not to mention. After all, we don’t talk about killer lions – or killer jellies.
The trend also extends to extinct animals. Sabre-toothed tigers (saber in American English) are now sabre-toothed cats (despite not being true cats) or simply sabretooths. And what about poor Brontosaurus, whose name was wiped from history when it was temporarily reclassified as Apatosaurus? Now Brontosaurus is back, the paleontologists having changed their minds again. Perhaps we should just stick with the old names.
While the impetus for these changes in nomenclature comes from the scientific community, their spread to non-scientists is likely a result of the popularization of the science through TV documentaries. The BBC’s latest one, Blue Planet II, narrated by David Attenborough, is a feast not just of jellies, but also fish, orca, six-gill sharks, and hundreds of other weird and wonderful deep-sea denizens.
Anyway, I quite like jellies – the name, that is, not the animal. I’ll be trying to give the evil stingers a wide berth in the future.

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