Planet Earth

Name That Species

By Anne CasselmanAug 6, 2005 5:00 AM


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Confronted by the challenge of naming dozens of new species or geologic formations, scientists have risen to the occasion with wit, charm, and ingenuity. Some examples follow.

The George W. Bush beetle

What do you do when you have 65 new species of slime-mold beetles to name? That problem faced entomologists Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller, who discovered the new species while revising the genus’s monograph. “You can exhaust the really descriptive names easily. Once you’ve done that, you have the opportunity to be a little more creative,” says Wheeler, chief of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London.

First they named some after their wives. Then they moved on to characters in popular culture: Darth Vader, who resembles a beetle, and Pocahontas, who does not. After that it was political heroes. Wheeler is a fan of President George W. Bush, so he named beetles for Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I took a good deal of ribbing from my colleagues,” he says. But the kidding stopped after he got a thank-you call from Bush himself. “He seemed to understand that the honor was in having a whole new life-form named after you, not necessarily what its eating preferences are.”

A rock by any other name

Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity—still going strong after nearly a year and a half—have examined at least 1,000 geologic features on the Red Planet. That’s giving the scientists on the Mars Exploration Rover mission an unprecedented opportunity to put unofficial names on the map of another planet.

So how did they come up with Hanuman, Sun Wu Kong, King Kong, and Curious George for four rocks found near one another on January 22, 2004? That was the date of the Chinese New Year, the start of the year of the monkey. “Sometimes there is a theme that everybody agrees on, and so for a certain area we will try to use names that relate to each other in some way,” says Joy Crisp, project scientist on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission. “If you know that several names belong to a theme, you know those objects are close together.”

Other themes include Mayan and Incan words, mountains in Texas, and famous explorers. So you can find Gagarin Rock, named for Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in Vostock Crater, where all the other names are Russian. “In a funny way, it helps to lighten up the work and make it a little more fun,” Crisp says. And it’s educational. “We all learn about different cultures and locations.” Her favorite name so far, though, is all sincerity and no trivia: “I like the name Endurance for the crater that we went into. Our rovers have endurance to live this long and keep going and working so well.”

Monkey business

Meet Callicebusaureipalatii, otherwise known as the monkey. The recently discovered Bolivian titi monkey is now officially named for a Web casino based outside Montreal. The Canadian gaming site paid $650,000 to win an auction to “Put Your Moniker on an Entire Species of Monkey.”

For the casino this was just another publicity stunt (it previously paid $28,000 for a partially eaten grilled cheese sandwich thought to resemble the Virgin Mary). But for the Bolivian Wildlife Conservation Society, the auction was a blessing. The money will be used to maintain Madidi National Park. “It’s a significant amount of money, if you think about the existing park budget,” says Rob Wallace, a society conservationist who first spotted the species five years ago. He estimates the winning bid will generate between $40,000 and $45,000 a year forever. “We keep saying it, and we’re going to keep on saying it until someone says we’re wrong,” he says. “It is probably the most biologically diverse protected park in the world.”

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