Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Might you like a water mite named after you?

It is estimated that nearly 9 million species share the Earth but only 2 million of them have been named. In scientific parlance, organisms are named using binomial nomenclature with the first word referring to the genus and the second word the species (e.g., humans = Homo sapiens). Typically, the scientists who discover the new species get the pleasure of naming it. Often, the species’ name refers to the location where it was found, or it refers to a peculiar trait the organism possesses. Or, it may simply be the music that was playing at the time of the discovery.

Famed singer/actress/dancer Jennifer Lopez provided the inspiration for the name of a newly discovered species of water mite found near Puerto Rico, Litarachna lopezae. Some have speculated that this is due to an uncanny resemblance between their posteriors, but the scientists claim that they were listening to her music while analyzing the mites (nothing like a little “Booty” piping through the lab to stimulate the intellectual rigor that goes into experimental design). But biologist Vladimiar Pesic, who made the discovery, contends, "The reason behind the unusual choice of name for the new species is simple: J Lo's songs and videos kept the team in a continuous good mood when writing the manuscript and watching World Cup Soccer 2014”.

Litarachna lopezae, also known as "L.Lo".
Why the extra “ae” at the end of “lopez”? To make it sound more science-y, of course.
In the scientific world, it is considered an honor to have a species named after you. Think about having your name forever linked to a beautiful flower or a majestic beast that rules the jungle – that would be pretty awesome. But as noted above, not all creatures are pleasant to look at or even possible to look at without a microscope. Some creatures make us sick or even kill us. Who’d want to be named after such a critter?

Well, President Barack Obama was the motivation behind the naming of Paragordius obamai, a newly described parasitic worm. I’m sure there are many people chomping at the bit to crack a joke about this, but the researchers claim that the name stems from the fact that they discovered the worm in Kenya, the native country of Obama’s father. There is also a trapdoor spider, Aptostichus barackobamai, named after our current president, presumably in recognition of his confessed love of Spiderman comics. Well on his way to having the most species named after him than any other president, Barack Obama’s namesake has also been used for a lichen (Caloplaca obamae) and an extinct lizard (Obamadon gracilis). Oh, and who can forget about the “Obamafish” (Etheostoma obama)?

A politician named after a worm. And not just any worm – a parasitic worm. Live bait for any comedian.
The names of other presidents and politicians have been adapted for binomial nomenclature, although surprisingly, no species of newt has been named after Newt Gingrich yet. George W. Bush, along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, all have a species of the Agathidium slime-mold beetle named after them (Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi, and A. rumsfeldi). Both Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as Thomas Jefferson, have multiple species named after them. Clinton, Gore, and Carter have each been named after a species of Etheostoma (a genus of freshwater fish). And last but not least, George Washington served as the inspiration behind the name of Washingtonia, a genus of palm trees.
Let’s see if you can guess which celebrity is associated with the following species pictured below (answers at the bottom).







The answers:

1. Echiniscus madonnae, a microscopic waterbear named after Madonna. These critters are virtually indestructible and have lived forever.
2. Gnathia marleyi, a fish parasite named after Bob Marley that is only found in the Caribbean Sea.
3. Eristalis gatesi, a flower fly named after Bill Gates. Yes, it crashes a lot.
4. Kootenichela deppi, a pre-historic arthropod that reminded the scientist of Edward Scissorhands, so he named it after Johnny Depp. Ironically, the scientist who discovered this many footed creature is named Dr. Legg!
5. Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp from Thailand named after Lady Gaga.
6. Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, a marsh rabbit named after the founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner (Playboy bunny, get it?).

So where did we get this system to name all of the life on Earth (a science known as taxonomy)? Some say it formally started with Aristotle's classification scheme as early as 300 BC. First, an organism was divided into the plant or animal group. Second, animals were subdivided into those that had blood and those that did not. Third, animals were further divided into things that walked, flew, or swam. Aristotle's system gets confusing because a duck can do all of these things, but his scheme was good enough to last 2000 years.

In the 1700s, Carl Linnaeus revised this system to include more categories that grouped organisms based on their morphology (body form). He was also the one who perfected the binomial nomenclature with the genus and species names. Written properly, the genus is always capitalized and the species always in lower case, and the entire name should be in italics or underlined. Latin is used because it is a universal and "dead" language, meaning it is no longer in use and therefore immutable. Plus, it sounds very scholarly. The Linnaeus system is so elegant and effective, it is still used today.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter: @wjsullivan

Hanelt, B., Bolek, M., & Schmidt-Rhaesa, A. (2012). Going Solo: Discovery of the First Parthenogenetic Gordiid (Nematomorpha: Gordiida) PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034472

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