In­tro­duc­ing… Bowie Spi­ders!

Clever sci­en­tists are nam­ing new species af­ter some very un­likely pop-cul­ture icons

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY JA­COB DUBÉ FROM MOTHERBOARD.VICE.COM

FOR YEARS, PEO­PLE have been nam­ing their pets – and their kids, in some cases – af­ter pop icons they love. In 2016, the name Khaleesi, in hon­our of the Game of Thrones char­ac­ter, was in the top 50 baby girl names in the US.

Sci­en­tists, too, are con­stantly nam­ing newly dis­cov­ered species af­ter celebs. But these names might carry a lit­tle bit more weight: while a baby named Khaleesi can get older and de­cide to legally change her name, sci­en­tific names go down in the his­tory books. There’s the Agra schwarzeneg­geri bee­tle, named af­ter Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger’s bi­ceps; the Aleiodes shaki­rae wasp, named af­ter Shakira’s hip and belly dance move­ments; and the list goes on.

Turns out, there is a method to this seem­ingly mad nomen­cla­ture. Some­times hav­ing a recog­nis­able name at­tached to what might oth­er­wise be an un­re­mark­able lit­tle crea­ture is the only way for the species to get wide­spread at­ten­tion. The lat­est case in point: In Sep­tem­ber 2017, re­searchers ­an­nounced the dis­cov­ery of 15 new species of spi­ders in the Caribbean. They named three of them af­ter Leonardo DiCaprio, David Bowie, and Michelle Obama.

Spi­der ex­pert Ingi Ag­nars­son, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont, was the lead re­searcher of the Caribbean study pub­lished in Zoo­log­i­cal Jour­nal of the Lin­nean So­ci­ety. He says sci­en­tists who dis­cover a new species can ba­si­cally call it what­ever they want, as long as they use the cor­rect genus name. For ex­am­ple, some sci­en­tists name a new species af­ter a loved one or an­other sci­en­tist; it’s frowned upon to name it af­ter them­selves. Ag­nars­son’s team called one spi­der Spintharus skelly, af­ter a re­searcher’s cat, Skelly. The only real prob­lem, he said, would be if a sci­en­tist was go­ing to re­ceive any sort of po­ten­tial ben­e­fit. For ­ex­am­ple, if a cor­po­ra­tion paid a lab to name a species mi­crosofti. (Even when the names don’t have tra­di­tional Latin trans­la­tions, Latin-ify­ing names for species is a com­mon prac­tice in science. Gen­er­ally, just add an i if it’s a mas­cu­line name and an ae if it’s fem­i­nine.)

Ag­nars­son, along with four stu­dents who par­tic­i­pated in the re­search, named spi­ders af­ter prom­i­nent ad­vo­cates for an­i­mal con­ser­va­tion and ac­tion on cli­mate change.

Among the spi­ders Ag­nars­son named are Spintharus david­bowiei (not the first crea­ture named af­ter Bowie), S. david­at­ten­bor­oughi (not even close to the first crea­ture to be named af­ter Sir David At­ten­bor­ough), and S. leonardo­di­caprioi ( Spintharus be­ing the spi­ders’ genus).

Ag­nars­son says some species are named this way be­cause sci­en­tists have trou­ble get­ting the pub­lic in­ter­ested in their stud­ies. Iden­ti­fy­ing them with a recog­nis­able per­son is a way to raise aware­ness and pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to learn about the is­sues sur­round­ing na­ture and con­ser­va­tion. It also al­lows sci­en­tists to high­light some hu­man-like traits in these an­i­mals and ul­ti­mately make them a bit more re­lat­able.

“We’re al­ways try­ing to find ways of call­ing at­ten­tion to ma­jor is­sues in con­ser­va­tion and cli­mate change,” says Ag­nars­son. “This way, the gen­eral pub­lic will hear about it.”

Some real ( but ob­scure) Lat in words won’t get many head­lines, but the Neopalpa don­ald­trumpi moth with a yel­low­ish-white coif of scales man­aged to get peo­ple talk­ing.

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