Ángeles Alvariño: Woman of Many Namesakes

An arrow-worm from the genus Spadella. Alvariño discovered and classified the species Spadella gaetanoi in 1978.

An arrow-worm from the genus Spadella. Alvariño discovered and classified the species Spadella gaetanoi in 1978.

(Zatelmar, Wikimedia Commons)

Latin names of species may seem boring—a litany of extra-long names in a dead language, useful mainly to biologists. If you look into the stories behind them, however, Latin names are often more entertaining than you might think. The mollusk Arca noae, for example, is named after the biblical Noah’s Ark, while the upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea andromeda takes its name from two well-known characters in Greek mythology. A marine worm was named after reggae legend Bob Marley because its tentacles reminded the scientists of dreadlocks. Both the freshwater fish Etheostoma obama and the saltwater fish Tosanoides obama are named after former American president Barack Obama. In fact, it’s not all that uncommon to name species after people, including other scientists. If a scientist is especially prolific and beloved, she might be the namesake of multiple new species. Ángeles Alvariño is one of those scientists, a woman for whom both plankton species Aidanosagitta alvarinoae (an arrow-worm) and Lizzia alvarinoae (a hydrozoan) are named.

It’s fitting that these tiny animals be named after Alvariño, because she is first and foremost known as a world-renowned expert on zooplankton. Born in 1916 in Spain, Alvariño grew up wanting to be a doctor like her father—an ambition that he discouraged. She ended up going for a master’s degree in natural sciences, which she completed in 1941. Then she taught for seven years. Not until 1948 did she begin her research career. Although she was working in marine research, she had not yet focused on the zooplankton groups for which she was to become so well known. In fact, the decision to study those organisms was years away. In Madrid, where she worked at the Department of Sea Fisheries, Alvariño decided that she also wanted to do research at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography—and that’s where she ran into trouble.

At the time, there was a law still on the books forbidding women from boarding Spanish navy vessels. If that sounds absurd and archaic, that’s because it was, even decades and decades ago. The law dated from the 1700s, when Charles III ruled Spain and most people didn’t have indoor plumbing. But the research vessels at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography were Navy ships. And the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, officially, did not admit women.

It was the quality of her work and the impressiveness of her academic credentials that turned the tide for Alvariño. She was admitted to the Institute in 1950, already a formidable researcher. While there, she would go on to investigate everything from the marine life that builds up on the hulls of ships to zooplankton in Newfoundland. And she would continue publishing her research in the Institute’s affiliated journal until 1969. But her time there was only the beginning of her story.

In 1953, Alvariño moved to Britain to continue her oceanographic research, but this time, she decided to study zooplankton exclusively. At Plymouth Marine Laboratory, she became the first woman scientist aboard a British research vessel. She worked with eminent oceanographer Frederick Stratten Russell, who himself was an expert on zooplankton, including arrow-worms and medusae. At the time director of the laboratory, Russell advised Alvariño to focus on the zooplankton groups—arrow-worms, hydrozoans, and another group called siphonophores—which are now so closely associated with her name.

Soon after, Alvariño went on to the U.S. She spent the 1960s working at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, where to her delight she found “un océano de muestras de plancton para estudiar”—an ocean of samples of plankton to study. She figured out which species of zooplankton could act as indicators for the water temperature, and studied the distribution of plankton in the oceans as well as how they were affected by ocean currents, pollution and ship movements. After leaving Scripps, she did research in Antarctica, taught in Mexico, and held positions at a multitude of institutions, from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the University of San Diego. She didn’t retire until the age of 71, and even after retiring she continued to go on research voyages. She had just finished drafting a book about a late-1700s oceanographic expedition when she died in 2005. 

Over the course of her life Alvariño discovered 22 new species of plankton. Their names, as Latin names so often do, have stories behind them—ranging from the siphonophore Lensia eugenioi, namesake of Alvariño’s husband Eugenio, to the arrow-worm Pseudosagitta scrippsae, which shares its name with the Californian oceanographic institution where she worked for over a decade. As it’s frowned upon in the scientific world, Alvariño did not name a single one of the species she discovered after herself. It was up to later scientists to name Aidanosagitta alvarinoae and Lizzia alvarinoae in her honor. But they weren’t the only ones to use a christening to pay their respects. In 2012, seven years after Alvariño’s death, the Spanish Institute of Oceanography launched a new research vessel from the fishing port of Vigo, Spain.

It was named the Ángeles Alvariño.

August 2017