Marketing 'Kenai' in the science world

Photo by Carol Griswold The Kenai song sparrow, one of several species named after the Kenai Peninsula, is endemic to coastal habitats of the Kenai Peninsula and islands in Prince William Sound.

The strange ways that history can converge in contemporary times never cease to surprise me. In the 1740s, early Russian visitors to Kenayskaya, the Russian name for Cook Inlet, started trading furs with local Dena’ina (now called Kenaitze) in a coastal village called Shk’ituk’t (meaning “where we slide down”), which is now the City of Kenai at the mouth of the Kenai River on the Kenai Peninsula.


About that same time in Sweden, Carl Linnaeus was working on Species Plantarum, published in 1758, which established our modern system of organizing living things taxonomically into what we now call binomial (if you’re a botanist) or binominal (if you’re a zoologist) nomenclature. All organisms were given a two-part scientific name, genus and species. So all of us became Homo sapiens in Linnaeus’ system. Sapiens is Latin for “wise,” an adjective that supposedly applies to modern man.

But sometimes location is used to name a species, either because this is where the species was first described by a taxonomist or this is the only place where this species occurs. Where all of this intersects with us is that there are a bunch of organisms that have been formally named after the Kenai Peninsula, variably called kenaiensis, kenaica, kenaii, or kenaiense.

Just last month, Matt Bowser, entomologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, wrote a Refuge Notebook article about a new species of smut fungus called Anthracoidea kenaica. Although found elsewhere in North America, it was first reported from the Kenai Peninsula.

Similarly, a moss species was named Sphagnum kenaiense because it was first collected here on the Refuge at Headquarters Lake. As an aside, Sphagnum bergianum was also collected for the first time at Headquarters Lake and was so named to honor Dr. Ed Berg, the long-time Refuge ecologist who retired two years ago.

We have our very own species of birch tree, Betula kenaica, that grows in the subalpine zone of the Kenai Mountains. A specimen of Phratora kenaiensis, a metallic black-purplish leaf beetle that commonly feeds on aspen, was collected at Moose Pass in 1951. Psammostiba kenaii, a rove beetle that inhabits decomposing seaweed on beaches, was only recently described in 2003 from specimens collected in Homer (and Haines).

But species naming is not always so straight forward. Charles Darwin recognized way back in 1857 that there were “lumpers” and “splitters.” Lumpers are taxonomists who focus on the similarities between organisms and are likely to be conservative in their recognition of new species. Splitters, on the other hand, focus on the differences between organisms and are likely to split one species into two or more. Hybrids and subspecies fall between the cracks.   

For example, Carex x kenaica, is a putative hybrid between Ramensk’s sedge and Hoppner’s sedge, two common saltmarsh species in Alaska. It was first described in 1949 from Goose Bay on Knik Arm, ironically not on the Kenai Peninsula.

At the turn of the last century, museum collectors tended to be splitters. Wilfred Osgood, during his survey of the Cook Inlet in 1901, reported that Kenai foxes, Vulpes vulpes kenaiensis, were the largest fox in North America. Confirmation of this possible endemic subspecies may have been muddied by commercial fox farming on the Kenai between WWI and the early 1930s, which sometimes involved interbreeding captured local foxes with captive stock from elsewhere.

In contrast to Kenai foxes, American marten from the Kenai Peninsula are smaller than individuals from other North American populations and are classified as Martes americana kenaiensis. Here again, the science is based on collections in the early 1900s, and more recent taxonomists have questioned the subspecific designation.  Marten commonly feed on red squirrels which, on the Peninsula, may also be an endemic subspecies, Tamasciurus hudsonicus kenaiensis. I couldn’t find any information that distinguished our red squirrel from adjacent mainland populations, but a logical guess is that it’s smaller.

Another subspecies, identified during the Harriman Expedition in 1900, is the Kenai song sparrow, Melospiza melodia kenaiensis, one of seven subspecies currently recognized in Alaska.  It is smaller and browner than other song sparrow subspecies and is widely distributed along the coast of the Kenai Peninsula and islands in Prince William Sound.  What’s fascinating is that Toby Burke and Todd Eskelin, our two birding experts at the Refuge, believe that song sparrows breeding along the Kenai River and up towards Hope, may be different from even our recognized Kenai song sparrow.

Why should any of us care that “Kenai” gets mentioned in the world of scientific taxonomy? It just emphasizes something that many of us already know: the Kenai Peninsula is special. Special enough to warrant naming species after it. Special enough that some endemic subspecies occur here and nowhere else on earth. Developments in molecular genetics may change how species are lumped and split in the future, but it doesn’t detract from our collective responsibility to ensure a home for them on the Kenai.      


John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at or


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