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Zoology from A to Z

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My grandchildren enjoy snacking on a brand of cereal bar that displays a believe-it-or-not zoological fact on each wrapper. One of these reads: “Did you know? The last animal in the alphabet is the zyzzyva.”

Not true! The last animal in the alphabet is the U (ewe) — others being the B (bee), I (ai, or three-toed sloth) and J (jay). And maybe N (’en)?

Presumably the wrapper’s claim was intended to refer to the last in an alphabetical list of animals, but even there zyzzyva is kept from the final place by at least three other creatures — zyzzyx, zyzzyxdonta and zyzzyzus.

Zyzzyx is a genus of sand wasp, of which the sole species is Z chilensis. As its specific name suggests, it is to be found in South America. (The name “Zyzzyx” also has a notoriety in the movie world because a 2006 thriller called “Zyzzyx Road” is the lowest grossing movie in US history, with box office takings totalling only $30.)

Zyzzyxdonta is another genus with just one species — Z alata. This land snail was named by a malacologist who had previously burdened some other snails with the generic name Aaadonta so that they would be first in alphabetical lists of snail genera. For his new discovery he chose a z-ridden name because the species had many features that contrasted with Aaadonta.

But while Aaadonta and Zyzzyxdonta might bookend an alphabetical list of snails, neither would hold a terminal place in a full list of animal genera. The former would be beaten to first place by Aaaba, a genus of beetle from Australia, while the latter would have to concede last place to Zyzzyzus, a small genus of marine hydrozoans.

And what about the cereal bar’s zyzzyva? The generic name Zyzzyva has been assigned to some tiny yellowish weevils found in tropical South America.

As with all the other creatures mentioned here, the Zyzzyva genus was only given its quirky name to ensure a prominent position in zoological glossaries and manuals.

 

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