Scientific names are often Latinized forms of the name of a person connected with the discovery of the taxon, or describe some characteristic quality such as color, size or habitat. This column focuses on the Egyptian tortoise.
The Egyptian tortoise was first described to science in 1869 by the German scientist and famed curator at the
British Museum, Albert Günther. He named it Testudo leithii, in honor of Dr. A. H. Leith who had collected
(along with numerous other species) the specimen that Günther had based his description on. In 1883 the French
naturalist Louis-Charles Lortet also described the tortoise. He named it T. kleinmanni after Kleinmann, a bank
director at the Crédit Lyonnais in Egypt, who had found it in abundance in the vicinity of Alexandria. By 1887, Lortet
realized that his and Günther's tortoises were probably one and the same species. Consequently, the scientific
community generally adopted Günther's earlier name for the Egyptian tortoise.
This changed in 1953 when Ernest
Williams, renowned herpetologist at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, pointed out that in 1852 Henry John
Carter had given the name Testudo leithii to a fossil water turtle found near Bombay, India. Because Carter had
used the name first, Günther's use of the name for the Egyptian tortoise was invalid. The accepted name therefore
became Testudo kleinmanni, Lortet 1883, and this name remains in use today although sometimes modified with the
subgeneric moniker Pseudotestudo.
Despite the rejection of leithii for the Egyptian tortoise, Leith's name is still borne by a living turtle since the Indian softshell Aspideretes leithii (Gray, 1872) is also named after him. The fossil leithii
now lies in the genus Carteremys that Williams named after Carter in his 1953 paper.
Originally published in the Tortuga Gazette 29(1): 10, January 1993