10 species named after famous people

Beyonce and the scaptia beyonceae (AP and Bryan Lessard, CSIRO) Beyonce and the eponymous horse fly: Both have "unique dense golden hairs"

Within the space of a few days, a bloodsucking crustacean parasite has been named after reggae legend Bob Marley, and a genus of tropical fish has been given the name of British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. What is going on here?

An estimated 17,000 to 24,000 animal species are identified every year, says Dr Ellinor Michel of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, at London's Natural History Museum - a few mammals, hundreds of amphibians and many thousands of insects and other invertebrates.

The scientists who identify the new species get to choose a name. Often they pick one that alludes to distinguishing features of the animal, or the place it is found. Some choose the name of someone they respect, as with the Dawkinsia fish, and the parasite named after Marley.

Facts about the Dawkinsia

The Dawkinsia fish
  • Freshwater tropical fish found in South Asia
  • Has long protruding filaments that make it irresistible to females
  • Also make it dangerously conspicuous to predators

"Scientists generally do not name species after themselves," says Michel. "That is seen as the height of arrogance, undermining any honour in having a scientific name remembering them into posterity."

1. Richard Dawkins fish. Having a genus (larger group) named after you is an even greater accolade than having a single species named after you. Dawkins described it as "a great honour". He told the BBC he was in not in the slightest bit offended that the fish, discovered by Sri Lankan scientist Rohan Pethiyagoda, weren't higher up the food chain. "There's no such thing as an evolutionary scale, fish are wonderful creatures, so I am delighted that my name is being attached to four of these species, and very beautiful they are too."

2. Bob Marley parasite. Last week a small crustacean parasite which feeds on fish in the Caribbean was named Gnathia marleyi, after reggae legend Bob Marley. "I named this species, which is truly a natural wonder, after Marley because of my respect and admiration for Marley's music," said Paul Sikkel, a field marine biologist at Arkansas State University, quoted by the AFP news agency.

John Cleese and lemur John Cleese has a passion for lemurs

3. Beyonce horse fly. The Scaptia beyonceae, a rare species of horse fly found in Queensland, Australia, was named after the American singer Beyonce, in January. Scientist Bryan Lessard said it was "the unique dense golden hairs on the fly's abdomen that led me to name this fly in honour of the performer".

4. John Cleese lemur. Actor and comedian John Cleese had a woolly lemur named after him in 2005. The Madagascan Avahi cleesei, which is endangered, was named by Urs Thalmann as a tribute to Cleese's promotion of nature conservation in films such as Fierce Creatures. Cleese told the New Scientist he was really touched because he was "absurdly fond of the little creatures".

How do you name a species?

First of all you need to identify a new species, found either in the field or in a museum, and support that identification of its uniqueness using data on the morphology (physical features) or genetics. The species needs to be clearly, repeatedly different from other species that it might be related to.

You then publish the findings in a scientific journal, ideally one that is peer-reviewed. This means that other specialists subject your work to critical scrutiny, improving the scientific reliability all around.

At this point you can give it a name, that you feel reflects well on the discovery - naming it for a special feature, for the place it occurs, or in honour of someone you respect. If you publish it according to the rules, the name sticks for perpetuity.

Dr Ellinor Michel, International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature

5. George Bush beetle. Former US president George Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld all had beetles named after them in 2005. Quentin Wheeler, one of the scientists who discovered them, said the decision to name three species after politicians had nothing to do with physical features. "One has to be creative with names," he told the BBC. "We are two of the only politically conservative scientists around, and we decided to stick our necks out." He said Mr Bush called him to thank him for the gesture.

6. Kate Winslet beetle. Another beetle, the Agra katewinsletae was named after actress Kate Winslet because of her role in the film Titanic. Terry Erwin, the entomologist who discovered the beetle, explained that he was alluding to the threat posed to the beetle by deforestation. "Her character did not go down with the ship, but we will not be able to say the same for this elegant canopy species, if all the rainforest is converted to pastures."

7. Adolf Hitler beetle. Anophthalmus hitleri is a species of blind cave beetle found only in five humid caves in Slovenia. It was named, not surprisingly, by a German collector in 1933 - an admirer of the man who had recently become chancellor of Germany.

8. David Attenborough plesiosaur. The acclaimed British naturalist has had several species named after him, including the Attenborosaurus conybeari, a long-extinct plesiosaur named by US palaeontologist Robert Bakker. Bakker is quoted as saying that he paid this tribute because it was Attenborough's childhood fascination with Liassic plesiosaurs that "sparked a brilliant career in scientific journalism".

9. Hugh Hefner rabbit. Scientists named the marsh rabbit Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, found in the south-eastern United States, after the founder of the Playboy empire, which has a cartoon bunny as its logo, and employs waitresses dressed in bunny costumes. Hefner has donated money to protect the endangered rabbits.

10. Prince Charles frog. Earlier this year a tree frog was named after His Royal Highness, in recognition of his charity work to protect their rainforest habitat. Hyloscirtus princecharlesi, or the Prince Charles stream tree frog, was first discovered in Ecuador in 2008.

Richard Dawkins spoke to Newshour on the BBC World Service.

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