This Sunday marks the 64th annual Grammy Awards, one of the best-known ceremonies in the music industry. It’ll be a night of performances, speeches and plenty of glitz and glamour. But off the red carpet, scientists have long presented musicians with an entirely different kind of honor: species names.
Some bands — say, The Beatles — practically cry out for a tribute in the animal kingdom. Others require a little more creativity. Take Metallichneumon neurospastarchus, an iridescent purple wasp that invades the bodies of butterfly larvae. According to the researchers who described it, the name’s Greek roots (neurospasta for “puppets” and archos for “ruler”) pay homage to the album “Master of Puppets” by the heavy metal band Metallica.
Sure, this kind of recognition doesn’t come with a trophy. But if having a parasitic wasp named after you doesn’t mean you’ve made it, I don’t know what does.
First up, we have Sericomyrmex radioheadi, a fuzz-covered ant that lives in the Venezuelan Amazon. Ants are famously industrious insects, and S. radioheadi is no exception. This species and its cousins are known as “fungus-farming ants,” growing miniature fungal gardens to feed their colonies.
The 2017 study describing the ant was led by Ana Ješovnik, a researcher in Croatia’s Institute for Environment and Nature and a research associate and former graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She and entomologist Ted Schultz, the museum’s curator of ants, wrote that they dubbed the species after the rock band Radiohead to acknowledge the group’s “longstanding efforts in environmental activism, especially in raising climate change awareness.” What’s more, they added, Radiohead’s music “is an excellent companion during long hours at the microscope.”
Other scientists have also paid tribute to the musicians who got them through field and lab work. In a scientific journal article published in 2017, a group of researchers from the Queensland Museum and the University of Hamburg wrote that Bob Marley’s music “aided a field trip to Port Douglas in coastal Queensland, Australia, to collect spiders with a highly unique biology.”
The scientists named one of those spiders Desis bobmarleyi, in honor of the song “High Tide or Low Tide” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, because it lives in what’s known as the intertidal zone. At high tide, when seawater rushes in, spiders in this genus hide in shells and corals and create pockets of air using silk. When the tide retreats, they search for food. That ingenious strategy earned the spider a spot on the World Register of Marine Species’ list of the ten most remarkable underwater species described in 2017.
Known as the “Queen of Tejano Music,” Selena garnered music industry recognition for her trailblazing, though tragically short, career. Thanks to a pair of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she now has an insect species named after her, too. In a scientific journal article published in 2016, the scientists described Selenacentrus wallacei, a type of insect known as a treehopper that lives in southern Texas, where Selena was born.
Treehoppers, which get crucial nutrients by sucking sap from trees, are known for their distinctive pronotum, a long piece of armor that extends up from their back. They come in a remarkable variety of shapes and colors, from the brightly-striped Platycotis vittata to the spined camouflage pro Umbonia crassicornis.
It’s not only insects that get the star treatment. Take Lemmysuchus obtusidens, a hulking reptile that lived roughly 160 million years ago. In 2017, a group of researchers led by a paleontologist from the University of Edinburgh reexamined the Jurassic fossil and concluded that it had been incorrectly classified. They renamed the crocodile-like predator in honor of Motörhead frontman Lemmy, who, one of the researchers told Reuters, probably would have liked the animal.
Other heavy metal bands have gotten taxonomic tributes, too. There’s a species of bush viper that scientists from the University of Lisbon named for James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica. And a team of researchers including museum paleobiologist Davey Wright recently named two species of extinct brittle star in honor of the bands Deep Purple and Meshuggah.
Among the family of insects known as leafminer flies is Agromyza princei, first described in a scientific journal article in 2019. The study’s lead author, a naturalist from Massachusetts, has written that he first spotted tunnels created by this species on the leaf of a raspberry plant. Mulling over what to name the fly, he said, he found himself thinking of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” — and named the species accordingly.
Leafminers are notorious among gardeners for the winding tracks they leave behind. Adult insects lay their eggs on a leaf, and once the weather warms, the larvae emerge and begin burrowing beneath the leaf’s surface. And they’re not picky eaters, happy to chow down on plants from chrysanthemums to water lilies to arugula.
Other plant-eaters are far more specialized. Tympanoctomys loschalchalerosorum, a rat that lives among the salt flats of La Rioja Province, Argentina, only dines on plants that are also adapted to a salty environment. “Salt specialists” like these rats are remarkably rare among mammals, spending their lives in habitats with scant greenery, little shelter from the sun and only occasional rainfall.
The talented rodent, commonly known as the Chalchalero vizcacha rat, was described in 2000 by a team of researchers from Texas Tech University. According to the authors, the species name pays tribute to the Argentine ensemble Los Chalchaleros, “in honor of their 52 years singing the traditional music of western Argentina, its habitats and its history.”
Last but not least is Anacroneuria carole, a species of stonefly that lives in the Andes Mountains. Stoneflies are aquatic insects that are particularly sensitive to pollutants in the streams and lakes where they live, making them good indicators of water quality. According to the Mississippi College entomologist who described the Andean species in 2004, the name “honors singer, songwriter, environmental advocate, Carole King, in recognition of her music career.”
In fact, a number of musicians can claim namesakes among the stoneflies. There’s Leuctra dylani, named for Bob Dylan, and Taeniopteryx mercuryi, named for Queen’s Freddie Mercury. And we mustn’t forget the 2018 journal article that introduced Petroperla mickjaggeri, Lapisperla keithrichardsi, Electroneuria ronwoodi, Largusoperla charliewattsi, L. brianjonesi, L. micktaylori and L. billwymani. Collectively, the authors refer to those ones as — you guessed it — the “rolling stoneflies.”
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