Specious monikers & famous fossils

The extinct trilobite, go-to genus for rock ‘n’ roll fossils

– by Geoff Olson –

The late British marine biologist Alister Hardy was once asked how many things were named after him. He listed off a boat in Hong Kong, a squid, an octopus, an island in the South Pole, and – speaking in a quiet tone of mock embarrassment – he added: “two worms.”

It’s been a longstanding scientific tradition to name newly discovered animal species after cultural icons. In 2013, scientists commemorated The Doors singer and “Lizard King” Jim Morrison with the extinct reptile Barbaturex morrisoni. That same year, the names of Queen band members were seen fit to grace four species of damselflies, including Heteragrion freddiemercuryi.

Celebrities of all sorts have been celebrated zoologically for decades, and some of the monikers are quite lovely. Consider Rostropia garbo, a “solitary female” wasp named in 1990 after the famously reclusive actress Greta Garbo. The butterfly genus Nobokovia was pupated in 1960 for the Russian novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov.

Scaptia beyonceae was conceived by an Australian researcher in 2011 after singer Beyoncé Knowles, reportedly because of the horsefly’s solid gold back end. And there’s a genus of fern known simply as Gaga.

In 2017, two scientists from the Smithsonian Institution’s Ant Lab described Sericomyrmex radioheadi “as an acknowledgement of [the band Radiohead’s] longstanding efforts in environmental activism, especially in raising climate-change awareness, and in honour of their music, which is an excellent companion during long hours at the microscope while conducting taxonomic revisions of ants.”

Ants are hardly the smallest creatures to be pegged with celebrity status. A tardigrade is an ancient and extraordinarily resilient micro-animal capable of surviving extreme temperature, pressure, radiation, dehydration, and starvation. A perfect fit for Keith Richards, you might think. But no, in 2006 two scientists chose the age-defying/denying pop star Madonna for the tardigrade distinction.

At least Keef joins Queen in being acknowledged with a trilobite. And who can’t see the resemblance of the hardiest species of Rolling Stone to an ancient, segmented marine artwhropod, apart from the seeming unlikelihood of his extinction? (For his part, Mick Jagger has no fewer than three creatures named after him, including a snail and an extinct ungulate related to the hippopotamus.)

The naming of animal species must follow the guidelines established by The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Founded in 1895, the ICZN mandate is all about “achieving stability and sense in the scientific naming of animals.” Without guidance from this august organization, it’s unlikely we would have had the professional and proper dispensation of Lemmysuchus obtusidens, which means “Lemmy’s blunt-toothed crocodile,” after Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister.

“Zoological names would lose their utility if they were changed frequently and arbitrarily. It would create confusion if we call an object spoon today and apple next week,” the ICZN notes helpfully on their website. Certainly Pinkfloydia, a genus of spider, is unlikely to ever be confused with Simonandgarfunkula, a nonexistent fruitbat I just made up.

Perhaps even as I write this, some marine biologist is preparing to slap a Spice Girl’s surname on some sand flea. However, it’s not all about science offering Latinate high-fives to pop stars. There’s now a bee that name-checks media critic Noam Chomsky, a crustacean that codes for whistleblower Edward Snowden, and a louse and butterfly that render the cartoonist Gary Larson. A spider, a fish, two beetles and a stonefly sit in for Late Show host Stephen Colbert.

However, there’s one public figure zoologists can’t get enough of: Barack Obama. There are no fewer than 12 animal species named after the former president, including a snail, a spider, a beetle, a fish, and a blood fluke (though the last sounds worryingly like a reference to the alt-right trope disputing Obama’s US birth).

BBC nature series host Richard Attenborough sensibly ties Obama with 12 creatures of his own. But neither comes close to Walter Rothschild, the obscenely wealthy 19th century British banker, politician and zoologist. The baron has 153 insects, 58 birds, 18 mammals, three fish, three spiders, two reptiles, one millipede and one worm carrying his name. (Well played, Walt. Your fan base kicked in long before the Sixth Great Extinction did.)

If celebrities begin to outnumber Earth’s species, there’s always the promise of archaeological digs. Every time a previously unrecorded critter is dug up, it’s a chance for some star’s name to light up the fossil record like Times Square. In 1997 Johnny Rotten, the late Sid Vicious, and three other members of The Sex Pistols had their names attached to five species of trilobite, which appear to be the go-to genus for rock ‘n’ roll fossils.

Sci-fi author Michael Crichton sensibly inspired Crichtonsaurus in 2002. Paleontologist Dong Zhiming from the Chinese Academy of Sciences then went on a polysyllabic bender with the dinosaur Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima, which incorporates names of cast members from the 1993 film, Jurassic Park.

Now then, can you think of one garishly coloured and cartoonishly coiffed public figure who might have a flamboyant equivalent in the natural world? Canadian scientist Vazrick Nazari discovered a moth with yellowish-white head scales, which he duly pegged Neopalpa donaldtrumpi. It does indeed look like an insect wearing a tiny Trumpian toupee. Nazari said he chose the name, approved in 2017, “to bring wider public attention to the need to continue protecting fragile habitats in the US that still contain many undescribed species.”

Nice one. I believe there’s something to be said for shaming or honouring public figures through species-specific monikers, obscure and nerdish as it may be. Perhaps we can have a go at it with our own political leaders.

Is there an Elizabeth mayfly waiting in the wings, perhaps? An Andrew schistosoma in the blood? And what about Doug Ford, who resembles some exotic species of puffer fish? Surely there is some undersea monster, in blind ignorance, awaiting attachment of the Ford surname. And what of Ovis aries, the Scottish Blackface sheep? Is that a species worth rebranding as Ovis trudeau, after our culturally-inappropriating Prime Minstrel?


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