Heard of Hitler beetle or Greta spider?

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg   | Photo Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Naming is an interesting prodecure done with scientific precision (and occasionally with scientists having fun!).

For decades now, species have been named after celebrities and popular fictional characters too.

Let’s take a look at some names – from interesting to bizarre!



Greta Thunberg: Synonymous with climate activism, this 17-year-old Swede has at least three creatures named after her in just the last two years - Thunberga greta (huntsman spider); Craspedotropis gretathunbergae (snail); and Nelloptodes gretae (beetle). The beetle seems to have antennae resembling her long pigtail. But scientist Michael Darby says he chose the name because he was “immensely impressed” with her campaigning.

Charles Darwin: Not surprisingly, the naturalist best-known for his contribution to evolution, is among those after whom several species have been named. The number’s a whopping 200-plus species. The list includes everything from bugs and beetles to algae, flies and primates.

David Attenborough in the Netflix documentary

David Attenborough in the Netflix documentary  


David Attenborough: Not less than 25 species and genera (both living and extinct) have been named after this British natural historian and broadcaster. Seems fitting for a person who has been bringing wildlife alive from even the remotest corners of the world through his television series for decades now. Among others, a Mesozoic reptile, an extinct marsupial lion, a 430-million-year-old crustacean fossil, and a fan-throated lizard discovered in India have been named after him.

Barack Obama: Though political leaders have had species named after them, their numbers cannot hold a candle to this former U.S. President’s. He has at least 10 species named after him - a hat-tip to his passion for science - and this includes fossils, birds, spiders, etc.


Michelle Obama: Spintharus michelleobamaae, a “smiley-faced” spider, named after the former U.S. First Lady.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: Drypetes kalamii, a small shrub, and Solibacillus kalamii, a microbe discovered on the International Space Station, named after the former Indian President.

Name and fame: Drypetes kalami. Photos: Special Arrangement

Name and fame: Drypetes kalami. Photos: Special Arrangement  


J.R.R. Tolkien: At least two species of wasps, a clam, a crustacean, and a beetle named after this writing genius.

Bagheera: Bagheera kiplingi, a Central American jumping, vegetarian spider, named after Bagheera, the loveable panther in The Jungle Book and the book’s writer.

Heard of Hitler beetle or Greta spider?

Batman: Otocinclus batmani, a South American fish, named after the masked superhero for the bat-shaped vertical spot on its fin.


Adolf Hitler: The blind cave beetle Anophthalmus hitleri is said to have been named by an entomologist with admiration for Hitler. But there are suggestions that naming a blind beetle after the dictator was actually an implicit sign of ridicule. Though we don’t know the truth one way or the other, the poor beetle is paying the price for its association with an infamous tyrant. It has been suffering poaching at the hands of the collectors of items related to Nazi Germany.

Fantastic names and where they came from

In an unusual case of fiction inspiring reality, several species have been named after characters from the iconic Harry Potter series. The latest to join the list is a new species of venomous pit viper found in the Himalayas. It has been named Trimeresurus salazar (the Salazar’s pit viper) after Salazar Slytherin, the founder of Slytherin house and one who can speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.

A few other Harry Potter inspirations include Eriovixia gryffindori (a spider discovered in the Western Ghats and resembling the sorting hat owned by Godric Gryffindor); Harryplax severus (a secretive crab named after Hogwarts teacher Severus Snape, who carried a secret to death himself); and Ampulex dementor (a parasitic wasp that injects venom into cockroaches and turning them into zombies, similar to how dementors suck the soul out of their targets).

How to name it

Researchers or scientists who chance upon a new species have the liberty to give it a new (scientific) name of their choice. Usually, species are named to honour another respected scientist or someone they’re close to. Naming a species after oneself is frowned upon within the community and could be seen as arrogance or being in poor taste.

Species are also named after the place they are found in or for their characteristics or resemblance to someone or something else. This is where celebrities and fictional characters come in. It is hoped that having a popular name would give the species more attention and interest than it would otherwise.

Here’s an example. When a threatened moth species was named Neopalpa donaldtrumpi after Donald Trump, it was not only for its resemblance to the U.S. President’s hairdo but also “to bring wider public attention to the need to continue protecting fragile habitats in the US that still contain many undescribed species”.

Did you know?

J. Vijaya is India’s first woman herpetologist. Uncommon for women during the 1980s, she travelled the country widely for research. She also studied extensively the forest cane turtle (back then called Heosemys silvatica). In 1987, aged only 28, she was found dead in a forest. In 2006 - 19 years after her death - the cane turtle was renamed Vijayachelys silvatica. This is a “monotypic” genus, meaning it’s one of a kind. Perhaps the same can be said of Vijaya too.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 11:42:47 AM |

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