For as long as we have had records and probably longer, mankind has sought to classify the world around us in an effort to being to understand it. This is called taxonomy, the study of the general principles of scientific classification, from the Greek words for order or arrangement and science. Three centuries before the common era, Aristotle grouped animals first by similarities, e.g. where they live, and then hierarchically, with humans naturally at the top. Not every animal fit well into this system. Ducks posed a particular problem, as they had a bothersome habit of living in water, on the land, and spending time in the air. It would be 1800 years before another natural philosopher, as scientists were called then, would try their hand, such as Andrea Cesalpino, Italian physician and botanist who sorted plants by the structure of their fruits and seeds. The first scientist to use a binomial, or two name, system that we would recognize was Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin, who grouped some six thousand plants by genus and species in 1623.
There were several inconsistent and sometimes conflicting systems of classification in use when Carl Linneaus wrote his influencial Systema Naturae in 1735, laying down the system we use to this day. Linnaeus was the first taxonomist to list humans as a primate, but he also originally classified whales as fish. All living things were sorted into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Many of us memorized that in middle school by way of a mnemonic like King Phillip came over from great Spain. A house cat, for example, is Kingdom Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, meaning it has a spinal cord, Class: Mammalia, Order: Carnivora, Family: Felidae, Genus: Felis, and Species: Catus. A lion diverges at Genus: Panthera (which awesomely means ‘reaper of all’) and Species: Leo, for the scientific name Panthera Leo. This system can be visualized as an enormous branching tree, with its trunk very broad and its branches increasingly specific.
We still name some animals in accordance with their appearance, with a little poetic license thrown in for good measure. The tiniest and most pastel of the armored mammals was christened the pink fairy armadillo. A hand-sized lizard with a gift for mimesis camouflage was given the metal moniker Satanic leaf-tail gecko. Its actual religious beliefs remain a mystery. As advertised, the star-nosed mole has a burst of delicate sensory tendrils on the tip of its snout. Osexax mucofloris is an unappealing worm who lives off the bones of dead whales, which would explain its name ‘bone-eating snot-flower.’ A bacterium that was taken to the international space station and exposed to cosmic radiation earned the Latin for ‘traveler of the void.’ China boasts a salamander species that can grow to a whopping 1.8 meters or nearly six feet long. It goes by the name Hellbender and this reporter, for one, will not argue with it. And then, there is the internet’s favorite ichthus, the blob fish. Removed from water, a blob fish cannot maintain its body shape and collapses into a rather dour-looking puddle.
Even with the Linnaeus taxonomy in place, we call some animals things that they simple aren’t. We all know that a seahorse is not a horse and most of us know that koalas are not bears, but did you know that a jackrabbit is not a rabbit but a hare? That may seem like a nit-picky distinction to the layperson. Hares tend to live alone and don’t live in burrows, and their young are born sighted with full coats of fur. Both animals come from the leporidae family, but part ways when it comes to genus. Jackrabbits get their name from have exceptionally long ears, like a donkey or jackass. Dorsal fin-less, fresh water-dwelling electric eels are actually knifefish, which sounds at least as cool. If you’ve ever found yourself watching “Go! Diego, Go!,” possibly after your child has already left the room, you’ve probably seen the lanky maned wolf. It should come as no great surprise that this committee-assembled-looking creature is not from the genus canis, like gray wolves, jackals, and even domestic dogs, but has the genus chrysocyon all to itself.
Red pandas are pandas, but giant pandas are not. Take a moment with that one. The adorable raccoon-like ailurus fulgens were the first to be called “panda”, which is believed to derive from the Nepali word “ponya.” When the black and white ailuropoda melanoleuca were discovered later, it was assumed that the two species were related, so they were dubbed giant pandas. They are from the family ursidae, which includes all bears, but the giant panda is in fact the only living species in its genus. What we call a buffalo here in North America is actually a bison by genus, whereas the Cape buffalo from Africa and the water buffalo from Asia, aren’t even in the same genus as each other, leaving common ground after their family designation of bovidae. There were also bison, now extinctm native to Europe and they caused science much consternation when the development of mitochondrial DNA testing, that being the DNA passed down the maternal line, showed that European bison were not in fact related to the Steppe Bison of Eurasia as previously thought. The answer was finally revealed with the discovery of a hybrid species. They dubbed this the Higg’s Bison, a play on the headline-making Higg’s Boson.
Never let it be said that scientists don’t have a sense of humor. Slime mold is the primary food for a beetle discovered in 2004, so their genus was labels gelae. The five new species are gelae baen, gelae belae, gelae donut, gelae fish, and gelae rol. Beetles will come up a lot, as they represent as much as 80% of all named animals. There is no shortage of puns. Take for example the species of pedilid beetle eurygenius. Or what about beetles of the agra genus, named agra phobia and agra vation, or the wasp whose genus and species are heerz lukenatcha. Tiny mollusks called ittibitium, a parrot named vini vidivici, the water beetle ytu brutus, the syrphid fly Ohmyia omya or the Pacific island snail Ba humbugi.
Scientists aren’t just stuffy old men in thick glasses and lab coats, poring over dry data sets. They are people, with interests and hobbies outside of work. Sometimes, these cross over. When arachnologist Peter Jager discovered a new species of spider in Malaysia that was covered with flamboyant red, orange and yellow hair, he could think of no better name for it than heteropoda davidbowie. A frog, two types of flies, and an isopod found near Zanzibar have been named after Freddie Mercury. A species of horsefly with a conspicuously colored hind end was name scaptia beyonceae. Likewise, a mustache-shaped pattern on a Cameroonian spider earned it the name pachygnatha zappa after absolute legend Frank Zappa. A nearly-micoscopic parasitic crustacean was named gnathia marleyi, for being “as uniquely Caribbean as [Bob] Marley.” Synalpheaus pinkfloydi, a pistol shrimp, is louder than a rock concert at over 200 db, simply by snapping its one over-sized claw shut. The gall wasps have left the building, at least if they are the variety preseucoila imallshookupis. A fossilized “muscle worm” was named for rocker, author, spoken word artist, and my future husband Henry Rollins. The wasp metallichneumon neurospastarchus’s genus honors the band Metallica with its species neurospastarchus, which is Greek for “master of puppets,” alludes to “the weak and mindless nature” of its hosts.
Actors get naming nods, too. Dominic Monaghan has a one centimeter ginger spider named for him, ctenus monaghani, after it was discovered during filming of the nature documentary “Wild Things.” After “shamelessly begging on national television” to have something named after him, late night host and satirist Stephen Colbert became namesake to a dune-dwelling spider in southern California, aptostichus stephencolberti. A fluffy lemur on the island of Madagascar shares its name with Fierce Creature and Python John Cleese, avahi cleesei. The hosts of Top Gear each have a wasp in the genus kerevata named of them, clarksoni, hammondi, and jamesmayi.
Former first lady of Argentina and well-traveled corpse Eva Peron has a moth named for her whose scientific name is simply Evita. Prince Albert I of Monaco is namesake to both a fish and a squid. A single genus of fish honors Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and Teddy Roosevelt. The neck plate of a leaf-dwelling Madagascan praying mantis, ilomantis ginsburgae, is part of the reason it was named for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The other reason being that it is the first mantis species with distinct female genitalia and discoverers Brannoch and Svenson wanted to honor Ginsberg’s “commitment to women’s rights and gender equality.” Sirindhorn, second daughter of the monarch of Thailand, commonly referred to as “princess angel” has been honored with a number of plants, several crustaceans, a butterfly, a bee and a prehistoric tarsier. Similarly, Barack Obama’s name was stamped on several spider species, a few different fish, a blood fluke, bird, lichen, beetle, extinct reptile, horsehair worm, and a bee. He and wife Michelle were dually honored in the naming of the teleogramma obamaorum fish.
Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series described the world as resting on the back of a giant turtle is the namesake of the turtle species psephophorus terrypratchetti. Shakespeare has a wasp named for him, while Henry David Thoreau has two. The author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” Jonathan Swift, is the namesake of a fly that is of course quite tiny while Herman Melville’s name was given to a whale. Gene Roddenbery has a true bug; Arthur C. Clarke has a dinosaur; Neil Gaiman has a beetle; H.P. Lovecraft has a wasp. A chewing louse that only troubles owls was dubbed strigiphilus garylarsoni (more from Gary Larson later). An extinct crab was named for Ray Harryhausen, the man who brought stop-motion monsters to life. J. R. R. Tolkien got a great deal of scientific love, in the form of a beetle, a crustacean, two wasps, and a clam. In addition to the false-headed moth Erechthias beeblebroxi, “Hitchhiker’s Guide” author Douglas Adams has an ant named for him, but does that make it an ‘Adam Ant’? There’s also a triple-finned fish named Fiordichthys slartibartfasti.
It should go without saying that there is great overlap between the lovers of science and the lovers of science fiction and other things geeky. Tolkien appears again with a shark named for Gollum, a cyclopic shark named for Sauron, an ancient croc called balrogus, and an entire genus of cordylid lizards name smaug. A tiny armored catfish from South America was christened Otocinclus batmani; we do not know if it fight crime at night. Harry Potter fans will want to steer clear of the ampulex dementor wasp, which turns cockroaches into zombies. Science has given us Spongiforma squarepantsii , but it’s not a sponge, it’s a highly porous mushroom. A trilobite that reminded the discoverer of the faces of the two old curmudgeons in the Muppet Theater box was dubbed Geragnostus waldorfstatleri. A newly-discovered genus of wasp has each of its species named for a different house in Game of Thrones, laelius arryni, baratheoni, lannisteri, martelli, targaryeni, tullyi, and starki.
While scientists gave a name to cartoonist Gary Larson, they also borrowed one from him. A 1982 “ Far Side” cartoon showed a caveman leading a lecture on the dangers of dinosaurs, pointing to a slide of a stegosaurus’s spiked tail and saying, “Now this end is called the thagomizer, after the late Thag Simmons.” The term became an informal but widely used anatomical term, being used by the Smithsonian and the BBC. And no, we don’t care that humans and stegasauri lived sixty million years apart.
As any lover of sci-fi will tell you, scientists don’t always use their powers for good. A number of species are scuttling about the earth with clap-backs, insults, and general misanthropy for names. Daniel Rolander was a student of Carl Linnaeus who collected thousands of specimens in Suriname, but refused to turn them over to Linnaeus, intending to publish himself. Linnaeus effectively had him blacklisted and named a seed bug aphanus rolandri; “aphanus” being Greek for ignoble or obscure. Two Swedish paleontologists, Elsa Warburg, a Jew, and Orvar Isberg, an overweight far-right socialist, were on unfriendly terms in the 1930s. Warburg named a trilobite isbergia planifrons; planifrons means “with a flat forehead”, which in Scandanavia means stupid. Isberg retaliated later with the mollusk warburgia crassa; crassa meaning “fat”. Cope and Marsh were paleontologists engaged in a fossil-hunting “war” in the late 1800’s. Marsh named an extinct aquatic lizard mosasaurus copeanus. “-Anus” simply means “pertaining to”, but that’s probably not the first thing to leap to the average person’s mind.
In 1985, James Pakaluk cast a wide net when he named, wait for it, a beetle genus foadia; F.O.A.D, an abbreviation for F-off and die.
Sometimes scientists plain run out of ideas. When one scientist reached his ninth species of leafhopper, he named it Erythroneura ix, I-X, or nine in Roman numerals. Dr. W. D. Kearfott found so many species of olethreutid moths that he eventually resorted to an alphabetical ascension, i.e. Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, and so on.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. New species are discovered every day, in the depths of the ocean, in the tallest trees in the jungle, and even in densely-populated cities. So next time you see a headline about a new species, check out the name. You just might be able to get in on the joke. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.
For those who like wordplay, there are anagrams (Rabilimis mirabilis), palindromes (Orizabus subaziro), rhymes (Cedusa medusa) and puns galore (Agra phobia, Gelae baen, Ytu brutus and Pieza pi).Pieza kake Evenhuis, 2002 (mythicomyiid fly)
Pieza pi Evenhuis, 2002 (mythicomyiid fly)
Pieza rhea Evenhuis, 2002 (mythicomyiid fly)
Some names are clever only in translation, such as Eucritta melanolimnetes, which can be roughly translated as “the creature from the black lagoon.” Others only make sense if you know they derive from a misspelling. The genus Alligator, for example, derives from “el lagarto,” Spanish for “the lizard.”
Aerodactylus, a disputed pterosaur genus named for the Pokémon Aerodactyl.
Midichloria, a genus of Gram-negative, non spore-forming bacteria, is derived from the midi-chlorians, a symbiotic, microscopic life form described in the fictional Star Wars universe.
Spongiforma squarepantsii, a fungus species from Malaysia named after the Nickelodeon character SpongeBob SquarePants from the show of the same name.
Yoda purpurata, a species of acorn worm from the North Atlantic ocean, was named after the fictional character Yoda from the Star Wars franchise. It is the only known hermaphroditic member within the phylum
This scientific name is Latin for “Holland is a terrible pig.” No, the scientists weren’t riffing on the Netherlands—Holland refers to the director of the Carnegie Museum, W.J. Holland. He was an eminent zoologist and paleontologist (and even an ordained minister). He started his career at the University of Pittsburgh before becoming the director of the Carnegie Museum.It was at the museum that this particular animal received its name. See, Holland was a bit of a blowhard, and his students and staff loathed him. If you’re thinking it’s a bit unfair to immortalize someone as a fat pig because they’re a little bit of a jerk, you need to know that that’s not the only reason. Holland stole a lot of his students’ credit. Even if he did not really contribute anything, he made them list him as the lead author on every one of their papers.
Callicebus Aureipalatii4- Callicebus aureipalatii
Photo credit: bolivia.wcs.org
It is an unfortunate reality that environmentalists and conservation efforts are almost always severely underfunded. This was the case with the Madidi National Park in Bolivia. In an effort to raise money, the park decided to auction off the rights to name a newly discovered species of monkey found in the reserve. An Internet casino company called Goldenpalace.com ended up winning, and the company decided to go with the groundbreaking and creative name of Goldenpalace.com.Yep, the Latin name, Callicebus aureipalatii, translates to the company’s domain name for their online gambling operation, and they spent $650,000 for that honor. The owner of the casino apparently envisions the purchase in the long-term. He imagines that his decision will be ensure a long history for his business, stating, “Thousands of years from now, the Goldenpalace.com monkey will live to carry our name through the ages.”This isn’t the only strange PR move the company has made for name recognition. They also spent $28,000 at a different auction for a half-eaten sandwich that supposedly bore the image of the Virgin Mary.
Paleontologist Tim Rich was leading a dinosaur dig in Australia. His holy grail was a dinosaur-era mammal, something rarely found in Australia. His students bet him that they would find one, and he asked what they wanted if they did find one. Well, the food at the dig was terrible, so the students—thinking they would never find evidence of the elusive creature—asked for one cubic meter (35 ft3) of chocolate.As it turned out, they did find what they were looking for, and Rich made good on his bet. Or at least he tried to, since a cubic meter of chocolate costs about $10,000. A local Cadbury factory made good on the bet for Rich, however, by constructing a ton of cocoa butter (the main ingredient in chocolate). They then led the grad students who found the fossil into a room filled with candy bars in an event, as one student described, like something out of Willy Wonka. The newly discovered fossil even ended up being named after the event: Kryoryctes cadburyi.