The World’s Strangest Scientific Names
Would you like to have an animal, plant or other organism named after you? Do you long to be immortalized in the faux-Latin of a species’ scientific name? Here are a few easy options:
You can discover one and name it yourself.
A colleague, friend or family member might have enough new species lying around and be willing to name one after you.
If you have enough money, you could pay an institution or charity to give a species your name. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography last year offered naming rights for several ocean species, starting from the rock-bottom price of $5,000.
Of course, if you’re famous, a scientist may honor you with, say, a spider, a la Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, or the tapeworm Acanthobothrium zimmeri, recently named for science writer Carl Zimmer.
But naming a creature after a person seems to lack a certain amount of creativity. After all, the rules for naming species are surprisingly open: The name must not be offensive, must be spelled in only the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet and may be derived from any language. In fact, a name need not be derived from anything at all; the rules state that an arbitrary combination of letters is also perfectly acceptable. (In contrast, astronomical bodies—like stars, asteroids and planets—have strict naming conventions overseen by committees.) So why shouldn’t a biologist have some fun when naming something she discovered?
Fictional characters (Han solo) have been honored, as have imaginary places (Dracorex hogwartsia). Unsurprisingly—since we are dealing with scientists—the genre of science fiction and fantasy seems to be a big draw, with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien a popular source (Gollumjapyx smeagol, Oxyprimus galadrielae, Macrostyphlus frodo and M. gandalf).
Some scientists turn to mythology, including Greek (Cassiopeia andromeda) and Norse (Clossiana thore).
Religion is another great source for names. There are species named for Indian gods (Stegodon ganesa), Egyptian gods (Papio anubis) and even a host of Aztec gods (Alabagrus coatlicue, A. ixtilton, A. mixcoatl and A. xolotl). The Christian devil has whole genuses named after him (Lucifer, Mephisto and Satan). And there’s even Noah’s Ark (Arca noae).
For those who like wordplay, there are anagrams (Rabilimis mirabilis), palindromes (Orizabus subaziro), rhymes (Cedusa medusa) and puns galore (Agra phobia, Gelae baen, Ytu brutus and Pieza pi).
Some names are clever only in translation, such as Eucritta melanolimnetes, which can be roughly translated as “the creature from the black lagoon.” Others only make sense if you know they derive from a misspelling. The genus Alligator, for example, derives from “el lagarto,” Spanish for “the lizard.”
Geography is an obvious source (Panama canalia), but there are a number of species whose names don’t seem to match their range. There’s the Australian death adder named Acanthophis antarcticus and the Tahitian blue lorikeet, Vini peruviana.
But sometimes people just run out of ideas. When one scientist reached his ninth species of leafhopper, he named it Erythroneura ix. And one early 20th-century biologist found so many species of olethreutid moths that it seems to have strained his creativity. A sampling includes: Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, E. hohana, E. kokana, E. lolana and E. momana. You get the idea.
Maybe he ran out of people he liked enough to give them a moth. I wouldn’t mind, though, having one named after me. And unlike Carl Zimmer and Neil Young, my last name lends itself perfectly to scientific nomenclature.