The British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough is increasingly the go-to man for scientists overcome by the creative challenge of naming a new discovery. Sir David has given his name to a prehistoric lizard, a parasitic wasp, an echidna (or spiny anteater), a fossilised fish and, now, a rat-eating plant.
It seems a dubious honour when your name is attached to a giant pitcher plant capable of trapping rodents in enormous folds. Sir David, however, is delighted that the carnivorous species was given the scientific title Nepenthes attenboroughii by a team of botanists led by Stewart McPherson, who discovered it during a plant-hunting expedition to Mount Victoria in the Philippines.
“I like these oddball plants and this is a very dramatic one. It can hold up to two litres of water in its jugs,” says Sir David. “It is a very nice, complimentary thing for this young, intrepid explorer to do and I am very touched that Stewart McPherson should have done it in my name.”
Every year, more than 15,000 new species of animal alone are recognised by scientists. In the old days, they would often pay tribute to a learned colleague but by the mid-19th century many species were named after wealthy patrons who funded scientific endeavour.
While modern scientists are admirably blind to the commercial potential of a new species of coffee plant called Starkbuckii or a prehistoric cow named McDonaldae, many have a weakness for honouring random celebrities. Hence we have a sea snail called Bufonaria borisbeckeri, a ground beetle named Agra katewinsletae and several dinosaurs named after Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg. Scientists have also immortalised their dodgy music taste (a dinosaur called Masiakasaurus knopfleri, after Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler) and geeky passion for Star Wars (a wasp named Polemistus chewbacca and a beetle called Agathidium vaderi).
This year, a species of lichen was named Caloplaca obamae in honour of Barack Obama’s support of science. The names given to three species of slime-mold beetle (Agathidium bushi after George Bush, Agathidium cheneyi after Dick Cheney and Agathidium rumsfeldi after Donald Rumsfeld) might not carry the same intent.
It is acceptable to name a species after a public figure but not after yourself, according to Steve Tracey of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.
Scientists naming discoveries after family members is also “a little bit naughty,” says Tracey, particularly as the discoverer’s name is anyway placed next to the species name so authorship is not forgotten.
His personal favourites are humorous: the mollusc of the genus Abra that was given the species name cadabra, while the British naturalist Sir Peter Scott caused a stir by giving the Loch Ness Monster the scientific name of Nessiteras rhombopteryx. Supposed to mean “the wonder of Ness with the diamond-shaped fin,” it was later revealed as an anagram of “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009