The Creative Side of Taxonomy: 10 of the Greatest Species Names

Every organism needs a name. Much like our own fore- and surnames, an organism’s name can be an window into its origin and relations. Each species is assigned a name of two parts (referred to as a ‘binomial name’), the first being the name of the genus to which it belongs, and the second a unique species name. Names typically stem from their owner’s appearance or anatomy. One of my favourites has to be mottled African wild dog whose Latin binomial name, Lycaon pictus, translates to “wolf-like” and “painted” respectively. Organisms are also commonly named after where there are/were found, or even a person.

The “painted” “wolf-like” African wild dog

With all the species in the world to name, there are only so many times taxonomists can bear a boring Latin or Greek-derived adjective. Despite many strict rules to follow, there’s always some wiggle room to get a bit creative.

While many other bloggers are gathering their favourite quotes, prettiest pictures, and most memorable moments of the year gone by, I am instead going to introduce you to some of the greatest taxonomic names that I have discovered in the past year as a student of taxonomy (even taxonomy students need to inject some fun occasionally!). Because I am just that cool.

1. Jaggermeryx naida

Celebrity attributions are increasingly popular. David Attenborough famously has a number of plants and animals named after him ranging from a species of carnivorous plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii), to a tiny spider (Prethopalpus attenboroughi), and even a plesiosaur (Attenborosaurus conybeari). Attenborough isn’t the only celebrity to have a species named after him. Lady Gaga lends her name to an unusual ungulate (Gagadon minimonstrum), and even Barack Obama isn’t left out with his own species of trapdoor spider (Aptostichus barackobamai). But my absolute favourite is the extinct species of hippopotamus named after Mick Jagger, Jaggermeryx naida. And why might this mighty beast be named after Mr. Jagger? Because of its supersized lips (Angelina Jolie was also on the shortlist apparently).

j_naida
Jaggermeryx naida with its Jaggeresque luscious lips

2. Euglossa bazinga

Its not just celebrities that get a piece of the taxonomic action – characters in movies and TV shows can also inspire taxonomists. The bee Euglossa ignita after further inspection was found to have been misidentified. This called for a renaming and the bee was given the new name Euglossa bazinga in honour of Sheldon Cooper’s famous catchphrase (for those who don’t watch The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon typically exclaims Bazinga! when he’s tricked someone, highlighting the appropriateness of this species name). I also like the irony here that Sheldon is in fact allergic to bee stings.

Euglossa bazinga (left hand side, images A, C, E, and G) compared to E. ignita (images B, D, F and H) alongside Dr. Sheldon Cooper who lends his catchphrase to this deceptive little bee. Credit: Andre Nemesio from Nemesio & Ferrari (2012) Zootaxa and bigbangtheory.wikia.com

3. Xenokeryx amidalae

Next up is an extinct animal named just very recently in PLoS. Fossil remains of a ruminant discovered in Spain and hailing from the Miocene period (23-5 million years ago) was assigned the name Xenokeryx amidalae because of how its three-horned occipital appendage reminded the researchers of one of the Star Wars character Padmé Amidala‘s hairstyles. Someone was clearly looking forward to the newest installation of the movies.

Artist reconstruction of Xenokeryx amidalae showing the horns resembling Queen Amidala’s hairstyle

4. The Genus Polemistus

Queen Amidala’s hair may present a unique source of inspiration for the naming of creatures, but within the Star Wars universe it seems to be Darth Vader who researchers can’t resist naming organisms after, with entomologists being the greatest offenders. The Sith Lord lends his name to a wide variety of creatures, ranging from a beetle (Agathidium vaderi) to a mite (Darthvaderum greensladeae) and even a plant (Begonia darthvaderiana). But the genus Polemistus, named by entomologists Arnold Menke and David Vincent, takes the prize when it comes to Star Wars attributes. Members of this wasp genus not only include Polemistus vaderi, but also P. yoda and P. chewbacca. Its like a mini reunion!

5. Han solo

I couldn’t resist squeezing in another Star Wars-inspired critter! This one isn’t just interesting for being named after Han Solo the fearsome space cowboy, but also thats its species name is “solo” and it is the only species belonging to the Han genus. I can see your eyes rolling already, time to move on!

Han solo, the lonesome triblobite

6. Bagheera kiplingi

To celebrate making it half way through the list, I present to you something adorable, both in appearance and moniker. This colourful jumping spider from Central America was named in honour of Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book. The genus name of course derives from the name of the black panther, Bagheera. I can only hope that this name is utterly ironic because not only are the species belonging to this genus actually incredibly colourful, but B. kiplingi is a strict veggie, a diet that is unique to it among spiders.

Bagheera kiplingi the veggie spider species, my favourite kind of spider.

7. Tinkerbella nana

Another invertebrate whose name comes from a children’s classic is the fairy wasp (or fairy fly) Tinkerbella nana. This little fella is one of the smallest known flying arthropods with its length coming in at just 250 micrometeres, equivalent to 2.5 times the width of a human hair. The genus name is of course a no-brainer, but it was a wonderful coincidence that “nanos” means dwarf in Greek, allowing Nana (the canine nurse) to be included in the spotlight.

The teensy tiny Tinkerbella nana

8. Ninjemys oweni

This heavily armoured beastie’s name translates to Owen’s Ninja Turtle and with a head like that it wouldn’t look at all out of place in an action cartoon. However, unlike it namesake, researchers are almost certain it didn’t chow down on pepperoni pizza and instead was a herbivore like its living relatives.

Skull of the prehistoric turtle, Ninjemys oweni (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

9. Aname aragog

Arachnologists seem to be a very creative bunch indeed. Any list showing celebrities with animals named after them will no doubt have a plethora of 8-legged beasties included on it. While I am not the world’s greatest fan of large, devious spiders I can still take time to appreciate their amusing names. My favourite has to be the trapdoor spider named after the giant spider first introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Aname aragog. You’ll have to google an image of that guy for yourself.

10. Dracorex hogwartsia

With a fearsome face and a kickass name to match, the final beast on my list also takes it name from the world of Harry Potter. This bipedal dinosaur from the late Cretaceous, Dracorex hogwartsia, has a spikey and very fairytale-esque appearance . The genus name mean “dragon king” with the species name paying homage to the famous school of witchcraft and wizardry. The specimen is appropriately housed in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis where it is oogled by thousands of children each year.

Dracorex hogwartsia, a species that looks like it emerged straight out of a fantasy film

 

I hoped you’ve enjoyed this more unconventional end-of-year list. If you know of any others that I might have missed out on please do mention them in the comments!

Wishing you all the very best for 2016!

 

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One thought on “The Creative Side of Taxonomy: 10 of the Greatest Species Names

  1. Love this blog! Educational and fun. I always loved understanding what the Latin actually meant when studying palaeontology as it helped build a better picture of what the name referred to rather than it just being a foreign phrase. Stuff like knowing that pachycephalasaurus means “thick headed lizard”, or understanding the various prefixes and suffixes like -pteryx, wing or coel-, hollow. And it’s great that sometimes you can have fun with names like you show here!

    Like

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