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It’s a tree, stupid

I sometimes stumble across a scientific paper that really surprises me. Not in a “wow, that’s a novel experimental design” kind of way. But one that surprises me enough to justify an image of a zebra.

It all started when my new friend Twitter alerted me to a paper in the journal PLoS ONE titled Categorizing Ideas about Trees: A Tree of Trees.

Oh, to think I was expecting a cultural studies paper on our relationship with trees – those tall, vascular plants that give us shade and fruit, that we climb, hang kids’ swings from or sometimes hug. How misguided could I be?

Alert readers will probably twig what I didn’t. PLoS ONE doesn’t publish cultural studies papers about trees, zebras or anything else.

So, you might guess what happened next.

When I clicked on the link, I found a paper about how systematic biologists think of, use and categorise, diagrammatic ‘trees’.

You’ll remember them from uni lectures or perhaps school – the ones that show the evolutionary relationship between species. It’s probably clearer if I show you an image taken directly from the paper:

No, this is a tree

No, this is a tree

It’s an easy mistake to make. Trees not trees, stupid. And yes, this really DOES take me one step closer to zebras.

I skimmed through the paper but it was soon clear that my 20-year-old undergraduate degree in biochemistry could only take me so far.

I ploughed on, nevertheless, determined to salvage something. Then I found the golden nugget I was looking for.

There among the unfathomable phrases, was the proposal that a new category of tree users would be called buffonians.


Buffonians, buffonians, buffonians. An imagined hybrid of buffoons and Etonians. Or perhaps buffoons and euphoniums. How could you not smile?

I later found that the word that made my day was named after the 18th century naturalist Buffon, a Frenchman who wrote about how horses, donkeys and wait for it – zebras – were related.

A little surprise, a new word. Not much, yet enough. Enough to justify the zebra photo.

Which words have made your day today?

Zebra image: Sias van Schalkwyk/Stock.xchng

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Isn’t the zebra’s stripes to do with camouflage in the savannah or something? I am sure there is a tree link there too!

    August 15, 2013

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