On Jan. 20, 2021, Fay-Wei Li was working on a manuscript about a new kind of algae that his lab had accidentally discovered while doing fieldwork in New York state. The team had already done the work of ensuring that this particular alga was indeed a never-before identified plant, now it just needed a name. At the time, Li’s attention was divided between the journal submission and another important milestone, President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“I had my separate screen playing the inauguration events,” says Li, an assistant professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute. A highlight of the program was poet Amanda Gorman, he recalls, as he and graduate student Tanner Robison were inspired by her speech and poem, “The Hill We Climb.” It was from this that they decided to name the new algae in Gorman’s honor, Gormaniella terricola.
The green goo, found in hornwort plants, joins a host of other species honoring famous people. There are wasps named after Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon, Lady Gaga, Shakira, Jon Stewart, Brad Pitt, and Idris Elba. Two of the three Spider-Man actors (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) have—you guessed it—spiders named in their honor. Greta Thunberg has an entire menagerie: a mayfly, a spider, a snail, a beetle, a leafhopper, a horsehair worm, and a sea slug are all named after her (they have different full scientific names from one another, as each belongs to a different genus). There’s even a creature, whose most defining characteristics are its blindness and tendency to bury its head in the sand, named aptly after Donald Trump.
There’s clearly a trend here: scrolling through the Wikipedia page of critters and plants with famous namesakes, it’s rare that you find an animal that’s not, well, a little weird.
Scientists can’t go around just naming things willy-nilly. Species are named according to “binomial nomenclature,” in that they are gifted a two-part name that is specific to that organism. The first part is the genus the species belongs to and the second part of the name is the specific name or species of the organism. As long as these conventions are followed, the researchers have full reign to decide on the specific species name, usually adding a Latin flourish at the end. For example, spiders named after Barack and Michelle Obama are Aptostichus barackobamai and Spintharus michelleobamaae, respectively. The beetle named after Kate Winslet is the Agra katewinsletae. A dwarf gecko whose agility was “reminiscent of the stunts of Jackie Chan” is called the Cnemaspis jackieii. I think you get the point.
As to why there are no monkey species or koala bear cousins sporting celebrities’ names, it’s likely due to sheer statistics. “To put it into perspective, as far as animals go, there are 1.5 million described species of animals. One million of those are insects,” said Derek Hennen, a research associate with the Virginia Museum of Natural History who led the discovery of the Taylor Swift millipede—Nannaria swiftae, or the “Swift twisted-claw millipede.” “Vertebrates like birds and mammals, which are the first things people think of when they think of animals, are not most of the animal diversity when it comes down to it. But since they’re larger, more charismatic, those are the groups that have had a big focus on them for hundreds of years at this point.”
It’s unlikely that researchers will discover a tiger or an elephant that has yet to be classified by science. But with the more “cryptic” organisms, there’s a lot more to uncover. According to Hennen, there are an estimated 15,000–30,000 millipede species that await identification. (I’m not sure there’s a big enough supply of pop stars to award them all celeb names, if scientists ever were to find them all).
Using species names to honor modern icons like Gorman and Swift can help bring attention to some of those overlooked creatures. “I think it’s a useful cultural way to connect people with animals and plants and these other species,” said Hennen. It’s also a reckoning over past naming tendencies. For years, new species were named after their morphological characteristics, where they were from, or famous scientists. (Charles Darwin has more than 300 species named after him).
“Many botanists in the 1700–1800s were men and they named things after other men that they respected in the field, that had contributed somehow to that field, to honor them,” Kathleen Pryer, a professor of biology at Duke University said. In 2012, Pryer’s lab devoted an entire genus of ferns—which includes species such as the Gaga germanotta and Gaga monstraparva—to the Mother Monster herself, Lady Gaga.
“In our particular case, we had an opportunity here to name a genus and we discussed it and didn’t want it to be named after an old white man,” says Pryer. “Because she was part of the popular culture at the time, and still is, and we were listening to her music, we suggested ‘let’s do it in honor of her.’ ”
Hennen had a similar experience, noting how he’s been a devout Swiftie for years and her music helped him get through some tough times. It was a no-brainer to name one of the new species he discovered after her. “There are so many more deserving people than just scientists or older scientists that have been in the field for a long time,” Hennen said.
Pryer also noted how it’s also a way to connect two worlds that are often perceived as quite separate, by letting scientists show off their inner pop culture fan. “It’s a way to say we, the people stuck away in labs, we pay attention and we appreciate what they’re doing,” said Pryer.
Pond scum might seem like a dubious way to honor someone. But to scientists, it’s more than just some vegetation.
“We see beauty in every organism and [the Gormaniella terricola] is a very pretty organism,” Li said. “From a distance, it’s just green stuff, but under a microscope, it’s really pretty. This is not a lowly organism. To us, this is a really pretty thing. “