Digital photo illustration by Karie Darrow, Department of Entomology, Smithsonian Institution
Published August 8, 2013
When you have to name 65 new species at once, it pays to get creative. That's how the Darth Vader beetle, or Agathidium vaderi, came to grace a scientific publication in 2005.
"We had exhausted the useful descriptive names," said Quentin Wheeler, a researcher at Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix who helped describe the beetles. "[So] that gives you license to get a little more inventive."
Participants in an ongoing contest—sponsored by the National Geographic Society—to name a mystery fish discovered earlier this year by marine ecologist Enric Sala only have to come up with one name. (You can enter the contest here in the comments section.)
But once named, this unidentified fish could bear its new moniker far into the future.
The contest runs until August 26, 2013, but there are already over 4,500 suggestions. Since participants can only enter once—and there is a ten-day trip to the Galápagos on the line—it wouldn't hurt to start thinking outside the box. (Read the contest rules.)
While taxonomists—scientists who describe and name species—try to bestow names descriptive of the new organism, there is also ample evidence that they like to have fun with their task. (Read about other oddly named species.)
Wheeler and colleague Kelly Miller are responsible for a genus of slime-mold beetles that include Gelae donut, Gelae baen, Gelae belae, Gelae fish, and Gelae rol.
"Kelly deserves the blame, or credit, as you choose," said Wheeler with a laugh. "It's kind of a tongue-in-cheek reference to [their] food source." The beetles in the Gelae genus feed on the immature, jelly-like stage of slime molds.
Wheeler chose to name the Darth Vader beetle after the Star Wars villain because the insect's shiny black head and slit-like eyes reminded him of the movie character.
Terry Erwin, an insect researcher who specializes in beetles at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, has named almost 300 species in a genus of beetles called Agra.
Erwin noted that he's got about 1,500 species in the Agra genus still awaiting names in a cabinet right outside his office door. And every time he goes collecting, he finds more new beetles. "This is a genus with endless species," he said.
The group includes species like Agra sasquatch—named for its big feet. Erwin named its sister species Agra yeti.
Two others bear the names Agra vation and Agra vate. Erwin insists he wasn't particularly annoyed when he named the two sister species. "It was just to use aggravation because it went with Agra," he said.
Yet another beetle is named Agra ichabod for Ichabod Crane, the main character in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, because the beetle Erwin used in his description of the species was missing its head.
"All the old guys who were strict Latin namers, I've outlived them all," Erwin said. Since he's the only one left working to describe all the new Agra species, no one criticizes his name choices anymore, he said.
Since all new species descriptions must be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, getting unusual names past colleagues is crucial. Luckily, those reviewers also seem to have a sense of humor.
Some of the more whimsical names researchers have come up with include a mushroom named for the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants—Spongiforma squarepantsii. (Related: "'Spongebob' Mushroom Named.")
And then there are all the species named for celebrities and politicians. There is a lichen species—a symbiotic pairing of fungus and algae—called Caloplaca obamae, named for President Barack Obama.
The Smithsonian's Erwin names some of his beetles for actors and actresses that star in disaster movies. "An actor or starlet doesn't get a name unless they've been in a film that I can use to compare to the destruction of the rain forest," he said.
There is Agra katewinsletae, named for the actress in the movie Titanic. And Agra liv, named in honor of Liv Tyler for her part in the movie Armageddon.
And finally, there are the rude and risqué names that have somehow made it into the pantheon of scientific literature.
A species of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico is burdened with the embarrassing moniker Gunterichthys longipenis.
The story goes that a fish specialist, or ichthyologist, in the '60s named Gunter had a drinking buddy—also a fish researcher—who named the fish after him as a joke.
If you'd like to see more examples of interesting, funny, and risqué scientific species names, you can start here.
Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.
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