By Eduardo Faúndez
Scientific names — at least for plants and animals — are Latinized words, and the Latin language was selected for the naming of new organisms because it’s a dead tongue.
Why choose a dead tongue? Here’s why: 1) A dead tongue is neutral because no one speaks it as their native language, and therefore no one gets any kind of linguistic advantage, and 2) a dead tongue does not evolve over time, which is a very important characteristic if we want the naming of species to be organized and stable.
Many scientific names refer to characteristics of the organisms they are describing. For example, greenish species are usually called “virens” or “viridulus,” which means green in Latin. Several insects and crustaceans have names like longiconis in reference to their long antennae, because “longi” means long and “cornis” means horn.
Other organisms are named after the places where they were collected, which is why many species are called “americanus” or “texanus” or “braziliensis.”
An organism can also be named after people. In fact, you can even tell if it was named after a man or a woman. Names that are based on men end in “i” or “oi.” On the other hand, names that are based on women end in “ae.” That’s why there are lots of names like “isabellae” or “paulae” or “rileyi” or “smithi.”
Some organisms are even named after fictional characters. For example, a beetle called Agathidium vaderi was named after Darth Vader from Star Wars. In fact, there’s also a wasp — Polemistus vaderi — that was named after Vader, and it’s joined by two other characters in the same genus: Polemistus chewbacca and Polemistus yoda.
There are tons of curious names in taxonomy. The cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants has a species of fungus named after him: Spongiforma squarepantsii. A spider called Walckenaeria pinocchio was named after the Disney character Pinocchio, and a little wasp called Tinkerbella nana was named after Tinker Bell. More recently, a horse fly was named after the singer Beyonce, a grasshopper was named after Mexican singer Lila Downs, and an aquatic mite was named after Jennifer Lopez.
The number of curious names is incredible, and the best compilation of them is probably the Curious Taxonomy Website, which is run by Mark Isaac.
Why do researchers use curious names?
This year I actually named an insect after a character in the Harry Potter saga. My colleagues from the Insect Systematics Lab at North Dakota State University and I described some new species of Heteroptera. One of our bugs came from Chile, my home country. It was found in an area of the country that is pretty well-collected, where we observed thousands of specimens, but only a few of this new species and genus. Something about these bugs made it difficult for people to see them easily, which reminded me of the Thestrals, a breed of winged horses with skeletal bodies from the Harry Potter books. Additionally, our bug has ivory carinae which resemble the skeletal bodies of the Thestrals, which led us to name the bug Thestral incognitus Faúndez & Rider, 2014.
Our article was published in the journal Zootaxa, and I was surprised to see it make the news worldwide. Then again, I wanted people to be aware of this species because we need more fresh specimens for molecular studies. Now that lots of people know about Thestral incognitus, we hope that someone will see one and will post photos on the Internet so we can get more precise collection data.
Sendra & Ortuño (2007) wrote about the issue of curious names and how they are celebrated by some and discouraged by others. In any case, these names get people talking about the new species, and they may even capture the attention of administrators who are in charge of providing funds to study biodiversity, which is often left behind other disciplines.
Whether you like them or not, curious names have a long history — Coleopterodes liliputianum was named in 1864 after characters from Gulliver’s Travels — and these names will continue to be used in the future because there are millions of species left to describe. Taxonomists who love their work want the world to know about all of the diversity out there. In my opinion, curious names are powerful tools that can be used by taxonomists for extension purposes.
Read more at:
– Sendra, A. & V. M. Ortuño. 2007. La importancia de llamarse Ernesto o la elección de un nombre científico adecuado: Gollumjapyx smeagol Sendra & Ortuño, 2006 (Diplura: Arthropoda). Boletín de la Sociedad Entomológica Aragonesa, 41: 4-5. Isaak, M. 2014.
Eduardo I. Faúndez is a PhD student at North Dakota State University in the laboratory of David A. Rider in Fargo, ND, and he is the director of the Medical Zoology Department at Centro de Estudios en Biodiversidad in Chile. His major research areas are systematics of the Heteroptera and medical zoology.