- Researchers have been known to name species after celebrities.
- Honoring a celebrity this way can show their fandom or bring attention to the animal itself.
- But it’s very difficult to change a species’ scientific name, and that can lead to regrets.
The list of species named for celebrities is lengthy and includes everything from flies (Beyoncé) to lichen (Oprah Winfrey) to lizards (Lionel Messi).
An eponym is a scientific species name based on a person, either real or fictional.
Some researchers say it’s a way to bring attention to spiders and other animals who are otherwise ignored. Others are simply fans or want to acknowledge celebrities’ environmental activism, as with Sericomyrmex radioheadi, an ant named for the carbon-conscious band Radiohead.
Certain species have physical or behavioral traits that suit a famous person or an acting role. Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi is a tarantula-killing roundworm named in honor of Jeff Daniels’ character in the movie “Arachnophobia.”
Yet some experts see naming a species after any famous person as a recipe for “nomenclatural regret.” Should a celebrity fall from their pedestal, what will it mean for the spiders or slugs left in the wake of their scandal?
The case for Taylor Swift’s millipede
A Virginia Tech researcher made headlines for naming a millipede after Taylor Swift. It seemed like a smart move, as everyday arthropods rarely make history, and this sort of publicity can help bring awareness, according to a recent paper.
University of Oxford biologist Katie Blake and her co-authors found that species with celebrity names had almost three times as many page views on Wikipedia as non-famously monikered control species.
But whether those views actually translate to better conservation efforts needs further study.
And it’s not clear if the attention is always positive, especially if the celebrity figure is more infamous than famous.
“We need more work to better understand how species are affected when named after someone who is fairly controversial,” Blake said. “Not only in terms of attitudes towards these species, but conservation action, too, where needed.”
While Blake thinks celebrity names can draw attention to amphibians and invertebrates “who aren’t exactly the public’s favorite taxa, the consequences of naming them after someone who is disliked may worsen such species’ conservation status.”
That’s one reason why some scientists want to rename a blind cave beetle.
The push to save a beetle named after Hitler
Part of a scientific name’s appeal is that it’s unchanging and the same in every language. But recently, researchers have begun proposing making changes to “scientific names that commemorate historical individuals who committed egregious crimes against humanity.”
Christopher Bae, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Mano, and his colleagues were more specific, stating that names with “tyrants, dictators, colonialists, and slave traders” should be changed.
Some examples include Adolf Hitler, Cecil Rhodes, and George Hibbert, all of whom have species named after them.
Hitler actually has
Scientists have warned that the cave beetle is threatened by poachers. “These collectors are going out and collecting and then selling them on the internet to Neo-Nazis because they’re memorabilia now,” Bae said.
Another example is the many species named for the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes who pushed for British expansion into southern Africa and supported racial segregation.
His name is splashed across the biological world, including many plant names stemming from the Rhodesia region, what is now known as Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Right now, the debate over whether to use a Rhodes-derived name is especially pertinent for paleoanthropologists who study early human ancestors. There’s a label, Homo heidelbergensis, that’s such a mishmash of species, that it’s no longer a meaningful designation, according to Bae. Instead, researchers want to introduce a new name for an ancestor of modern humans.
If they were to follow the traditional naming practice, then the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature’s rules state that the first name given to a species gets priority on being the scientific name, so the species would be called Homo rhodesiensis. A human skull found in Zambia was given that name in 1921.
However, Bae and many of his colleagues aren’t eager to start using the name Homo rhodesiensis, especially because of the significance of the species. “This guy had some real serious issues,” Bae said of Rhodes.
Earlier this year, Bae and over a dozen other paleoanthropologists gathered to discuss the issue, and it was nearly unanimous. Almost no one was in favor of using the Rhodes-derived name.
Another name, Homo bodoensis, named for Bodo D’ar, Ethiopia, where the skull was found, has been proposed instead.
What would it take to change a species‘ name?
There are hundreds of thousands of species with eponymous names, according to the ICZN’s estimate. But Bae thinks only a fraction of them reach the level of Hitler, Hibbert, and Rhodes. To protect against frivolous changes, Bae and his co-authors called for an ethics committee to review proposals.
“Nobody’s going to really want to go after every single name out there,” he said. “It’s really going to be the egregious ones that need to be looked at more carefully.”
But names can be changed. Consider the Brontosaurus, which was a genus of dinosaur that was lumped together with the Apatosaurus and then separated again in 2015. The alterations are often made for scientific reasons but not always.
The American Ornithological Society is in the process of changing the common English names of bird species named after people. The organization Bird Names for Birds has pushed for the change because many of the animals are named for people who enslaved others or dug up Native American graves.
However, the birds’ scientific names will remain, as they are much more difficult to change, NPR reported.
Down with all eponyms?
“We already have thousands of species named for people who are now obscure,” Stephen B. Heard wrote in his book “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.”
That a celebrity might fade from public consciousness isn’t the worst thing that could happen, though. Case in point, Hitler’s beetle.
Chances are most celebrities with eponymous species won’t leave a legacy as tarnished as some powerful men of the past. Yet societal norms do change, and it’s easy to see how some famous people’s reputations changed after the #MeToo movement, for example.
And some researchers would prefer to correct the imbalance of species named mostly after European men from the 19th and 20th centuries, instead naming more species after women and native scientists. Or perhaps changing existing eponyms to be more inclusive.
As some researchers noted, “their names will not be eliminated from history: they will simply move into synonymy,” That is, there could one day be a footnote indicating that the species was formerly known as Hitler’s beetle.