What's in a name? Whether you're star-crossed lovers in a Shakespeare play or researchers exploring the ends of the Earth, names can be everything. A proper name can transcend languages and cultures, allowing anyone around the world to know who or what you're talking about.
Now, folks have a chance to help give a mystery fish a new identity—and for one lucky contest winner, a chance to go on a ten-day trip to the Galápagos.
Discovered in February in the seas surrounding the Desventuradas Islands (the "unfortunate" islands in Spanish) off the coast of Chile, experts say this fish (pictured) could be a new species.
The National Geographic Society is holding a contest from July 31 to August 26 to give this mystery fish a common name. People can enter their submissions in the comment box below. (Learn more about the contest rules.)
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala came upon the four-inch (ten-centimeter) creature while exploring a seamount near San Félix Island (map) in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
While maneuvering a submersible 436 feet (133 meters) down a basalt wall, Sala and colleagues spotted several brightly colored spots hovering near the rock. "We got closer and tried to focus and zoom our video camera to get a closer look, but the spots darted into a hole and disappeared as soon as our submarine lights were on them," Sala wrote in an email.
They saw more of the yellow-orange spots farther down and were able to get a good look at the organisms. It turns out they were fish that Sala had never seen before.
"We consulted experts and everyone thought that it was a new species," Sala added in an interview earlier this month.
Confirmation of this fish's new species designation must involve studies of physical specimens—experts performed initial examinations based on video footage and photographs—and a formal description in a scientific journal.
"Scientific naming is a very laborious process," said Luiz Rocha, a fish researcher at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, who was not involved in the expedition.
The amount of time it takes to formally name a species varies, but it can take anywhere from six months to a year, he said.
In the case of a potentially new fish species, specialists look at body measurements including the length, body depth, the number of scales in the lateral line, and the number of flexible spines in the fins called fin rays, explained Rocha.
But until researchers can fully examine this mystery fish, Sala would like to be able to share his find with the public.
"There are parts of science and discovery that should be conducted also by citizens," he wrote. "If people can name planets, they should be able to name animals, too."
Most organisms on Earth have two identities. All species formally acknowledged by researchers have scientific names: a two-part Latin moniker consisting of a genus and species designation that every specialist follows. (Learn more about the species concept.)
But many are also known by common names—like great white shark, gray wolf, or redwood tree. And those names can differ depending on which region you're in or what language you're speaking.
Rocha does a lot of work in Brazil, and he says that the common names of fish can vary depending on which community he's in. Sometimes those communities are separated by only a few hundred kilometers.
Scientific names do not vary geographically or by language, although it's common for experts to rename species as more information about the organisms' genetics or relationship to other species comes to light.
"It happens relatively often in the scientific literature," Rocha said. "A lot of times we find that one species that was widely distributed is actually two or three or more."
If that's the case, he explained, the original scientific name stays with the species that yielded the original specimen and the "newly" discovered species get their own scientific names.
The Name Game
Despite the importance of naming and describing species—otherwise known as taxonomy—the field tends to get short shrift when it comes time to distribute research funds, said Carole Baldwin, curator of fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Many taxonomists find themselves working on other projects that have better chances of getting funded and doing species descriptions on the side, she said.
But knowing what to call something, and how it fits in with its relatives, is the starting point for any further scientific study, said Baldwin. "It's the foundation of everything we do in biology."
And efforts such as the Encyclopedia of Life, a database with information about and images of all the species known to science, are entirely validated by taxonomy, she added.
The California Academy of Sciences' Rocha agrees, adding that although many people think everything out there has already been described, that's just not the case. (Related: "Pictures: Top 10 Newly Discovered Species of 2012.")
National Geographic's Sala was fairly certain his team would find new species when they ventured to the Unfortunate Islands. "Ours was the first deep-sea exploration of the deep habitats of the Desventuradas Islands with a submarine," he said.
"Of course, we could not know what we were going to find," Sala noted. "That's the magic of exploration."
To enter this contest, list your name for the fish in the comment box below. The contest runs from July 31 to August 26, 2013. Prize provided by National Geographic Expeditions. (Learn more about the contest rules.)
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