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Meleager, the mythological hero who slew the Caledonian boar was famously accursed by fate, but beloved by ancient Greek artists and poets. As it turns out, this fixation outlived the ancient classical era. In the modern world, the matchless hunter is now beloved by taxonomists and biologists! Not only are turkeys and guineafowl both named after the Caledonian prince, but one of the strangest and most peculiar looking fish from the strange and peculiar order Tetraodontiformes is also named for poor Meleager.

Behold the guineafowl pufferfish, Arothron meleagris, a fish which lives in tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This solitary puffer browses on corals and other suchlike invertebrates of the reef. Although they can grow up to half a meter (20 inches in length) and can swim very precisely and maneuver nimbly they are not strong swimmers, nor are they especially camouflaged (although their strange outline and spotted bodies help them blend in). If it really gets in trouble though, Arothron meleagris is a pufferfish and they can expand into a disconcerting spherical scary face which seems much larger than the fish itself.

Each of those chic spots is not just a dot but also a coarse bump, so they are further protected by a kind of sandpapery armor. Interestingly, guineafowl pufferfish come in three color varieties, deep purple brown with white spots, yellow with black spots, and a piebald mixture of yellow & dark brown with both black and white spots. Accounts vary as to whether the fish change color as they go through life or whether different specimens belong to one of the three types for life. Although I feel that Meleager’s name is suitably tragic for any fish in our dying oceans (particularly coral reef fish like the guineafowl puffer which are simultaneously hunter and hunted), tracing how the fish got the name involves a transitive leap. In mythology, Meleager was killed by his own mother after slaying his uncle in a quarrel (she used a sort of dark magic and was so horrorstruck that she immediately died herself). Meleager’s sisters were so consumed by cacophonous weeping that the gods took pity on them (???) and turned the women into guineafowl. Guineafowl are named after Meleager because of their strange lachrymose wails, however they are also spotted and stippled. Ichthyologists named the fish after the bird because both share white spots on a dark brown background (we will overlook the gold form for present).

Yet even if they got their name through a roundabout way, there is something anguished and otherworldly in the countenance of the guineafowl pufferfish which speaks to me of the odd popeyed expressions of tragic masks. Perhaps I will let this fish’s looks do the talking on behalf of Earth’s oceans today.

Last year Ferrebeekeeper featured a two part article concerning turkey breeds which sketched the long agricultural history of the magnificent fowl. One thing that article failed to explain however, was how turkeys obtained their (wildly inappropriate) English name.  As you can imagine, the birds are named after the Ottoman nation which bestrides Europe and Asia Minor in what was once the heart of the Byzantine empire.  A trail of misidentification lies behind the name, which ultimately involves an entirely different genus of birds from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Aztec Trickster Deity who manifested as a turkey

Turkeys were first domesticated by the ancient people of Meso-America in the distant past (most particularly by the Aztecs who called the birds by the elegant and onomatopoeiac name “huexoloti”).  When Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire four hundred years ago, they brought turkeys back to Spain and selectively bred them to reflect Iberian tastes and preferences.  The Spanish called turkeys “Indian fowl” as a result of Columbus’ mistaken belief that the Americas were somehow part of Asia and were close to India.  This name became enshrined in the French word for turkeys “la dinde” (d’Inde meaning “from India”).

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

The English saw these Spanish turkeys and mistakenly thought that they were domesticated guineafowl (Numida meleagris) which at the time were believed to come from Turkey (a major shipping nation with long ties to East African commerce).  The name stuck and even became part of the scientific nomenclature for the genus–the genus name “Meleagris” comes from the species name of the helmeted guineafowl Numida meleagris.  Later as the English explored Africa, the the guineafowl received the more appropriate English name which it now enjoys (insomuch as birds care what they are called). However the unfortunate turkey–one of the most North American of all animals–is foolishly named after an African bird once mistakenly thought to come from Asia minor.

Oh history, why can you never make any sense?

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