How Newly Discovered Species Get Their Weird Names

Whatever you do, don’t name your new species after yourself. That’s tacky.

Scaptia beyonceae, the horsefly named for the Queen B.

Image courtesy of Bryan Lessard/CSIRO

Horseflies are fierce. Like mosquitoes, they require a blood meal before they can reproduce. But even for a horsefly, this one was special. Bryan Lessard first spotted her in the Australian National Insect Collection. As soon as he laid his eyes on her round, golden abdomen, draped in two translucent, honey-colored wings, he knew: “I figured, if I’m ever going to name a species after Beyoncé, this is it.”

Until then, it had been known to locals as the “golden bum fly” but had not been described scientifically. No longer. In 2011, the artist-formerly-known-as-golden-bum-fly officially got her new taxonomic name: Scaptia beyonceae. With this moniker, Lessard hoped, she “would become an ambassador for bootylicious biodiversity.”

Taxonomists don’t always get such a chance to express themselves. Science is undoubtedly a creative endeavor, resulting in new knowledge and new frameworks that help us understand ourselves and the world. Yet getting there can be a drag. With all that data, drudgery, and meticulous measurement, the scientific process can prove positively mind-numbing, and journal studies aren’t exactly known for inspired writing.

But naming new species? Now there’s a party. “Naming things is probably the most creative time we have as taxonomists,” says Lessard, of Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation. That’s not to say there are no rules: All proposed names must meet standards set by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Zoologists apply the code “to avoid the chaos that would result if the naming of animals was not regulated,” according to the code’s FAQ. “Ordinary languages grow spontaneously in innumerable directions, but biological nomenclature has to be an exact tool that will convey a precise meaning for persons in all generations,” states the preface to the code’s first edition, from 1961.

Fortunately, within those rules, there is a lot of wiggle room. Like haiku, naming species is the art of restriction. For instance, according to the code, “No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.” Yet scientists have managed to name some particularly vile fungus-eating slime mold beetles after former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And in fact, Carl Linneaus, father of modern taxonomy, once named a stinking little weed after his main critic.

Naming species “combines two of the most difficult types of writing: the technical description and the poem,” Judith Winston, a curator emeritus at the Virginia Museum of Natural History who is on the board of the ICZN, wrote in her book Describing Species. But the challenge pays off. If you do it well, you can even leave your mark in a way that lasts: Homo sapiens, E. coli, and Tyrannosaurus rex are all taxonomic names that have found their way into the popular lexicon, and were originally devised by a scientist. “What really helps is when a 5-year-old can pronounce it,” Winston told me. “Names are power.”

Naming species is more than just fun; it is a crucial part of identifying how species are interconnected evolutionarily and where they stand in the great web of life. As Winston puts it: “You can’t run a planet without an inventory.” Biodiversity is like a vast library in which few of the books are labeled: Of the more than 8 million species estimated on Earth, only a little more than a million have been described. “Imagine trying to organize a library if you took the dust jacket and label information off every book,” says Lessard. “You need labels on books. You need species.” 

Modern taxonomy stems from the two-part naming system invented by Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, in the 1750s. The system has changed somewhat, and as in any field, there are modernizers and there are purists—in this case, the people who say you shouldn’t combine Greek and Latin roots. “There are cranky taxonomists,” as Winston puts it.

Despite its importance, taxonomy is still an often underappreciated art. “It doesn’t have the glamour,” says Winston. Daphne Fautin, a professor emerita at the University of Kansas who specializes in sea anemones, agrees. “It’s considered kind of old-fashioned science,” says Fautin. “But it’s essential for us to be able to talk about species to use their names.”

For a scientist who has toiled anonymously for most of his or her career, getting to finally name a species is like peeing on a tree: It’s a way of saying I was here. This is mine. To name a new species is to add one piece into that vast puzzle, to leave a mark on biodiversity and scientific history.

Fautin, for instance, has described several genera and nearly 50 species of sea anemone over the course of her career. Like every taxonomist, she has a favorite. Hers is a critter she has collected at low tide in New Guinea, Fiji, and Singapore. Fautin named this particular anenome—which is yellowish with red spots, and equipped with tiny stinging capsules—after her husband. The moniker is purely honorary: Anthopleura buddemeieri, she says, bears no physical resemblance to said husband (who was sitting next to her during this interview).

It should be said that, in taxonomy circles, naming a species after yourself isn’t kosher, says Winston. “You can name after your child, or your wife, or your husband. But you don’t name it after yourself,” she says. “That’s tacky.” Winston, who specializes in marine biodiversity and specifically bryozoan, has named one species after one of her daughters, “because it had tentacles the same color orange as her hair. She’s a strawberry blonde.” The name is Nolella elizae. “I don’t know if she’ll forgive me or not,” she adds.

Naming a new species, as you may imagine, is no walk in the park. Stephanie Bush, a cephalopod researcher in Monterey, California, found that out the hard way. In 2014, Bush was a research fellow at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute when she found something strange: a mislabeled octopus. Doe-eyed, mimosa-colored, and small enough to curl in the cup of your hand, the gelatinous creature had been identified as a member of the Grimpoteuthis genus; in fact, it was not. Though scientists had been collecting specimens since 1990, no one had gone through the work of properly naming it.

The challenge, therefore, fell to Bush. Fortunately, she already had an idea. OK, it was more of a joke. “It was just kind of floating around in my head,” she says. Her proposed name: Opisthoteuthis adorabilis.

When NPR’s Science Friday came to interview Bush about her latest work last May, she shared her idea. “Because they’re just … yeah. They’re really cute,” she explained. Her interviewer was delighted. You can probably guess what happened next. Pretty soon, the name was no longer just a joke floating around in a scientist’s head, but a viral Internet sensation. Before long most everyone had heard of the octopus so adorable that its adorableness was about to be enshrined in Latin.

Great! Except … Bush had never named a species. Now she actually had to follow through with it. And that, Bush found out, is when the real work starts.

To begin the process of naming a new species, you have to first make sure no one else has already discovered and identified this particular species—which means checking in databanks and museums around the world. Then, you have to gather enough specimens to make sufficient measurements and descriptions. Finally, you have to write a descriptive paper and have it published. The process can take more than a year.

How far is Bush in the process? “Not far, I’m afraid,” she says. Right now, she is gathering precise measurements, keeping the stiffened octopus corpses in bottles and dissecting them. “They pretty much cease to be adorable once you start dissecting them,” she says. But a catchy name like adorabilis can help get more exposure, get people interested. “The goal is bringing attention to animals people aren’t necessarily going to be exposed to,” says Bush.

Jellyfish expert Ferdinando Boero had adored Frank Zappa ever since he first saw him in concert in the 1970s. In particular, Boero was enamored with the idea of “conceptual continuity” that recurs in so many of Zappa’s songs: essentially, that while we experience reality as a series of individual pieces, in fact they are all part of one transcendent whole. A concert may be composed of dozens of instruments and hundreds of notes. But what we hear is not each individual element but the “one big note.”

For years, the biologist, who lived in Genova, Italy, had yearned to meet the musician, who he knew resided in Los Angeles. But one cannot just walk up to Frank Zappa’s house and ring the doorbell. So Boero devised a plan: He would apply for a fellowship to study jellyfish at a marine station in the picturesque Bodega Bay, in northern California. In 1981, he received a grant, and immediately wrote a letter (an actual letter, since this was before email) to Zappa (or rather, to his record label, since he didn’t have Zappa’s personal address). In it, he told Zappa that he would like to name a jellyfish in his honor.

It worked! After two weeks, Boero received an envelope from Frank Zappa, written by his wife. She said there was nothing her husband would like better than to have a jellyfish named after him. In the letter, she included their home address, on Woodrow Wilson Drive in Los Angeles. Boero came by, showed Zappa some drawings of the jellyfish, and asked which one he would like to bear his name from now until infinity. By naming Zappa’s selection Phialella zappai, Boero joined in a long tradition of scientists naming species in honor of their role models—consider the many, many critters named after the cultural treasure David Attenborough.

The two would go on to share a long acquaintance, culminating in Boero attending Zappa’s last public concert, in Genova in 1988. In it, Zappa played a song called “Lonesome Cowboy Nando”—which, Boero says, was about the scientist and the jellyfish.* “It was strange and incredible,” says Boero, who is now a professor of zoology at the Università del Salento in Italy, focusing on biodiversity.

In Phialella zappa, Boero’s passion for biodiversity and Frank Zappa converged. To him, the idea of conceptual continuity translates neatly into the sciences: “Biodiversity is the same,” he says. “There are millions of species, but it’s all part of the diversity of life … all the branches of science are like instruments. And the orchestra has to play the music. And the music we receive is one big note.” To name a new species is to be reminded that science, at its heart, is a creative enterprise: an exercise in imagination, a nod to life’s complexity, and an opportunity to add a new chapter to our library of knowledge.

If you’re lucky, you might even get to add a touch of poetry.

*Correction, Jan. 25, 2016: This article originally misidentified Frank Zappa’s song “Lonesome Cowboy Nando” as “Lonesome Cowboy Danville.”  (Return.)