April 19th, 2010
For Sale: Naming Rights to Newly Discovered Species
By Stephen Messenger
Once biologists started figuring out that their discoveries could get a lot of attention riding the coattails of a famous namesake, they began to get quite creative with taxonomy. As a result, there’s a myriad of new species named after fictional characters, actors, musicians, and politicians--from the Calponia harrisonfordi ant and the Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi spider, to a species of orange-colored lichen named in honor of Barack Obama. But now, in hopes of raising funds to continue research, scientists in Indonesia have begun granting the rights to name newly discovered species to the highest bidder. So, while you may never rub shoulders with celebrities, a species bearing your name could run with a star-studded crowd--if you have the cash.
According to The Jakarta Globe, the bidding has already generated some $2 million, producing such monikers as Paracheilinus nursalim for a recently discovered fish, named after Sjamsul and Itjih Nursalim. Some private companies, too, have gotten in on the action, resulting in another fish, the Chrysiptera giti, named after the Giti Group.
The auction which named these species was conducted by Christie’s auction house, with a portion of the proceeds going towards the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) to train more taxonomists. One of the reasons so many species’ names are up for grabs is because there aren’t enough people qualified for the job.
“There are only about 20 marine taxonomists in the country, and that is very inadequate compared with our country’s abundant marine species,” said Suharsono, head of LIPI’s Research Center for Oceanography.
For scientists in Indonesia, the challenge to classify newly discovered species, particularly the nation’s diverse marine life, is a race against time. “There is a possibility that there are many marine species that have gone extinct without ever having been scientifically recorded,” Hery Harjono, of the LIPI, said.
As scientists are trained with funds from the most recent auction, chances are more and more species in need of a name will be discovered--which might mean more naming rights up for sale and more money for research. An added benefit to the species, many of which could be threatened with extinction, would be in the awareness raised by the naming.
After all, who wouldn’t fight to protect the Aptostichus stephencolberti moth?
An article that appeared in Popular Mechanics last year lists some of the most notable celebrities to have had a species named after them, and mentions some of the rules taxonomists must follow when doing so:
Scientists are given free rein with naming, as long as they abide by guidelines set by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The rules for patronyms--or scientific names in honor of people--do not limit which names are used. They just provide a uniform naming method. In general, an animal species ending in ‘i’ is named after one man. The ending ‘ae’ is for species named after one woman; ‘orum’ is reserved for species named after couples. Plant species operate under slightly different rules because the gender of the species must match that of the genus.