What’s In a Name?
Scientists who discover a new species can name it whatever they want if they follow some basic rules, such as making sure the combined genus and species name is unique — and not named after themselves. Historically, names were based on the species’ physical characteristics, where the researcher found it or after the discoverer’s scientific mentor.
But that is no longer the case.
“We also use it as an opportunity not to take ourselves so seriously,” Baeza explains.
While a noteworthy characteristic, place or scientist still inspires some names, other species’ names are inspired by the famous, often to create social media buzz for a species that otherwise wouldn’t receive much — or any — notice. Other names recognize social causes or honor people or cultures who may have been overlooked in the past. Musicians, comedians and writers are common namesakes.
Reggae pioneer Bob Marley is immortalized by a crustacean parasite. Thanks to their golden locks, Beyoncé shares a name with a horsefly with gold hairs on its abdomen. A wasp in the eastern Andes mountains of Ecuador is named after singer-songwriter Shakira because of the caterpillar’s motions in which the wasp lays its eggs when the larvae hatch. Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deacon, members of the rock group Queen, each has a damselfly named after them. Not to be outdone, a whole genus of orb-weaver spiders is named for Pink Floyd.
Fittingly, a shark is named after Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, the novel that was later made into the blockbuster film.
After comedian Stephen Colbert asked scientists to name something “cooler than a spider” after him, they obliged with the Neotropical diving beetle, Agaporomorphus colberti.
New species are also frequently named after politicians and activists.
The list of species named after former President Barack Obama is long — two species of spiders, a fluke, lichen, a beetle, two fish, a bee, a bird, an extinct lizard, an Ediacaran biota (a marine organism), a horsehair worm, a sea slug and an ant. No other U.S. president has more species named after him. Theodore Roosevelt comes in a distant second with seven.
Former President Donald Trump hasn’t been left out of the naming game, either, with a yellow-headed moth, a nearly blind, wormlike amphibian that burrows its head underground, and a venomous caterpillar sporting some version of his name in theirs.
President Joe Biden has a species named after him, too. Shortly after he was inaugurated, two paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History named an extinct vampyropod, an ancestor of the octopus, Syllipsimopodi bideni.
The Carcinonemertes conanobrieni isn’t the only species Baeza has named after a celebrity. He and his colleagues named a tiny shrimp they discovered in the Caribbean after the actor and former teenage heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Perhaps that’s fitting since that genus of shrimp is popularly called sexy shrimp because of the way it sways its abdomen back and forth while walking. The name wasn’t Baeza’s first choice, but he relented because of the actor’s work to bring attention and funding to ocean conservation.
“I hope those names age well,” Baeza says.