Celebrity-inspired scientific names

By Tim Low 26 January 2017
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From Darthvaderum to Aphonopelma johnnycashi – sometimes scientists like to have a bit of fun when naming new species.

WHAT DOES THE the sci fi film Son of Godzilla share with a remote pool in Western Australia?

Both have something unique: Kumonga. In the 1967 Japanese film it was a giant mutant spider, in the pool it is a rare blind crustacean, Kumonga exleyi, named after the spider.

Scientific names are the dry end of biology but those who bestow them are sometimes playful. The crustacean has two relatives in family Godzilliidae – Godzillius and Godzilliognomus, cementing the tie to low-budget science fiction.

Star Wars beats Godzilla for the names it has inspired. Of the seven or more species in the franchise, Darthvaderum is a mite in Tasmania and Trigonopterus chewbacca a weevil in New Guinea. One has a head encased in dark armour and the other a furry face like Han Solo’s sidekick.

A spider in India grabbed world attention in 2016 after it was named Eriovixia gryffindori for having a rear end matching the sorting hat that put Harry Potter in Gryffindor House. A wasp in Thailand has been named Ampulex dementor because, like the Dementors of the wizarding world it leaves its victims (cockroaches) immobile with an injection of neurotoxins.

Aphonopelma johnnycashi

A female Aphonopelma johnnycashi, a species of tarantula discovered in 2015 and named after the US country music singer. (Image source: Chris A. Hamilton, Brent E. Hendrixson, Jason E. Bond/Wikimedia)

Singers have been honoured with a tarantula famously named Aphonopelma johnnycashi and another commemorating John Lennon (Bumba lennoni). There is a huntsman spider called Heteropoda davidbowie, an Australian horse fly honouring Beyonce (Scaptia beyonceae), and Mick Jagger has lent his name to an extinct hippo-like mammal from Egypt, Jaggermeryx naia. Its bones indicate big fleshy lips. 

Other organisms have been named after Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, Johny Depp, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Angelina Jolie, Shakira and Lady Gaga.

We can enjoy these names as evidence that biology can remain relevant to our times, that nature attracts interest when species are portrayed in creative ways. Some of the news items about these animals did spotlight the animals and not just their names and namesakes.

But when scientists honour performers they should be wary of endorsing a culture that is often self-centred. With so many animals and plants needing help to survive, the ethos we need is one of concern for those who have slipped behind more than admiration for those who have pushed ahead. Celebrity culture encourages the public to focus on a ‘lucky’ few instead of appreciating the many – the millions of species that share our spaces. Only by celebrating diversity can we hope to keep it. A catchy scientific name can shine the spotlight on something unusual, granting it a minute of fame, but a spotlight works by keeping most things in darkness. When fame operates as the measure of value, nature’s richness goes undervalued.

Funding for science is falling, leaving scientists anxious to show their work has public appeal. Expect to see a lot more celebrity names. I am expecting a day when someone honours the contribution to biology made by Kim Kardashian.

Tim Low is the author of the award-winning books Where Song Began and The New Nature. Follow him on Twitter @TimLow5.