5 Perks of Being a Taxonomer


Curious Expeditions, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thousands upon thousands of new species are discovered and described every single year. For the scientists who discover and describe them, each new species offers an opportunity for paying tribute to loved ones and heroes, for terrible puns, and—occasionally—for revenge.

1. You Can Name a Species After Someone You Admire …

Scientists name new species after colleagues, loved ones, and all kinds of celebrities. There’s a khaki-striped tree snail (Crikey steveirwini) named after “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and a fly with a golden booty (Scaptia beyonceae) named after Beyoncé. The parasitic wasp named after Shakira (Aleiodes shakirae) makes its host caterpillars wiggle like belly dancers. A prehistoric sea creature with scissor-like claws (Kooteninchela deppi) was named by a researcher with a fondness for Johnny Depp.

Lady Gaga’s got an entire genus of ferns, including Gaga monstraparva, or “Gaga’s little monster,” which is what she calls her fans. Scientists were inspired by the ferns’ gametophyte stage, which resembles one of the pop star’s flamboyant costumes. "We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression," researcher Kathleen Pryer told DukeToday.

2. … Or Someone You Hate.

Eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus was a pioneer of both taxonomy and fancy name-calling. He pulled no punches when christening new species, including the foul-smelling Siegesbeckia weeds, named for Linnaeus hater Johann Georg Siegesbeck.

Then there were Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg, the feuding paleontologists. In 1925, Warburg named a trilobite fossil Isbergia planifrons, or “Isberg’s flat forehead,” which is apparently Scandinavian for “Isberg is dumb.” Nine years later, Isberg struck back with Warburgia crassa, or “Warburg’s fat.” Burn.

These days, there are rules. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature prohibits species names using “intemperate language” or those “likely to give offense.”

Some species names walk the line. Researchers swore they meant it as a compliment when, in 2005, they named three species of slime mold beetles after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. A similar claim was made in the 1930s by the German entomologist who named an eyeless, predatory cave beetle after Adolf Hitler.

3. Terrible Puns and Silly Names Are Allowed.

When scientists discovered deep-sea crabs with hairy chests, their first thoughts were of David Hasselhoff, and the Hoff crab was born. Just this year, biologists introduced us to the very fine peacock spiders known as Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus.

But the hijinks are not limited to common names. Latin names get in on the fun, too. There’s the spider Apopyllus now and the beetle with long mandibles known as Strategus longichomperus. There are the fly species Pieza kake, Pieza pi, and Pieza rhea. There’s the sea snail Ittibittium, which is, naturally, smaller than its cousins in the genus Bittium. There’s an entire genus of snails called Turbo.

And then there are the butts—so many butts. There’s Colon rectum (a beetle), Arses (a bird), and Enema pan (another beetle). There’s a snail named Natica josephine, which sounds fine to American ears but can apparently translate to “The Pope’s butt.” Science!

4. You Give the Best Wedding Gifts.

When everybody else is buying toasters and hand towels, a beetle can really stand out. In an article in The Coleopterist’s Bulletin introducing the genus Parkerola, the authors explained:

This new genus is dedicated to the authors’ friends, Heidi and Joseph Parker, on the occasion of their marriage … In early 2015, Joe and Heidi became parents of Jonah Wallace Parker.

Mr. and Mrs. Parker are themselves evolutionary biologists, and were likely pleased as punch at the gift.

Marine biologist Greg Rouse named a sea worm after his girlfriend. “She really liked it,” he said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

So what about the rest of us, who probably won’t be discovering new species any time soon? Well, there’s hope—for the wealthy, anyway. If you have a lot of money—like, a lot—you don’t even have to discover a species before you can name it. You can just buy the rights. Research institutions have auctioned off naming rights for bats, sea slugs, spiders, frogs, and turtles. In 2005, an online casino shelled out $65,000 to name the GoldenPalace.com monkey (Callicebus aureipalatii). For real.

5. There’s Also, You Know, Being the First to Describe a Species.

Renown is great and all, but discovery is its own reward. And curiosity isn’t just for professionals in lab coats. With the advent of social media and mobile apps, citizen scientists are discovering and sharing cool things every day.

Whether drab or outrageous, cute or truck-faced, every single species we encounter is another reason to protect our weird-ass planet. We could go on exploring for all of human existence and never reach the end of the treasures this world is hiding. Hamlet was a whiner, but on this count, he was right: there is way more weird crap in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.*

*Slightly paraphrased.