In Australia the stories behind names for species are almost as varied and diverse as the animals themselves. Each species is given a scientific name (a mix of Latin and ancient Greek), and at least one common name for everyday use. But why are some common names so ordinary, (here’s looking at you, Brown snake) and others, well, not? Take for example the Carpentarian Pseudantechinus (also called Alexandria Pseudantechinus), a small carnivorous marsupial with a name almost as long as itself.
To uncover the narrative of this unusual moniker we first need to break it down into two parts, Carpentarian/Alexandria and Pseudantechinus.
The Carpentarian part is relatively straighforward as it is a reference to the geographical location where it is thought to occur – the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia. (The alternative name Alexandria Pseudantechinus refers to the Alexandria pastoral station in the Northern Territory where the first specimen was collected in 1906).
However the species remained a mystery after its discovery and was not recorded again on the Northern Territory mainland until 2009 when AWC ecologists found them at Pungalina-Seven Emu.
In future work as part of AWC’s ground-breaking partnership with NAPCo, we hope the Carpentarian Pseudantechinus may be rediscovered on Alexandria Station.
The second part of the name, Pseudantechinus, refers to the name of the group of closely related and similar looking carnivorous marsupials, the Pseudantechinuses. But what does this strange word mean? It has its origins in the ancient Greek word ‘pseudes’ meaning false, and the name of another group of small carnivorous marsupials, the Antechinuses. So the word literally means ‘false antechinus’.
When scientists first looked at these animals, they thought they were a new species of Antechinus, but closer inspection years later revealed they had different teeth arrangements. These differences were a key indication that these animals had evolved quite separately from Antechinuses.
There are many instances in nature of animals evolving separately but ending up looking like each other in similar body forms. This is called ‘convergent evolution’. Pseudantechinuses were named as a reminder that they look like Antechinuses, but are different.
Antechinus itself has probably one of the weirder naming histories. Broken down the term is split into two morphemes, the ancient Greek words “anti” meaning ‘equivalent to’, and “echinos” meaning hedgehog – the animal was initially thought to be similar to a hedgehog as they had similar teeth and were suspected to both be insectivores. Today we know hedgehogs and antechinus are quite unrelated, but both do enjoy feasting on insects.
So, altogether, Antechinus means “equivalent to-hedgehog”.
The name gets even more interesting when we look at the scientific name for the species: Pseudantechinus mimulus.
The ‘mimulus’ part of the name comes from the Latin word ‘mimulus’ meaning ‘little mimic’, which again refers to the fact they look like antechinus but are a completely separate group of carnivorous marsupials.
Meet some of the Pseudantechinus family: