A Beetle by Any Other Name
A few months ago, the news buzzed with reports that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had received an unusual honor. They had each had a species of slime-mold beetle named after them, courtesy of scientists at Cornell University. Debates raged on Internet chat rooms and blogs: Could the scientists be serious? Was it really an honor to be associated with such a creature as a slime-mold beetle?
To be sure, the words “slime mold” don´t inspire much awe. “The beetles have an unfortunate name,” allows Kelly B. Miller, a taxonomic entomologist now at Brigham Young University and one of the two co-authors of the paper designating the new species names. “But I really like them. They´re my taxon.” The beetles-which are between 1 and 3.5 millimeters long, black, and sometimes sport spots or an iridescent sheen-live in forests throughout the world, noshing on the eponymous slime molds. This particular survey was concerned only with the beetles of North America, which the scientists procured both in the wild and from other collections across the continent.
In all, Miller and his co-author, Quentin Wheeler (now at the Natural History Museum in London), identified 65 new species and renamed a further 35. Joining Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush are beetles bearing the names of the two scientists´ wives, the scientific illustrator who drew pictures of each species, other insect collectors, the Aztecs, and Darth Vader. None of the beetles, except for Lord Vader (A. vaderi), were so named because they resembled the person. “If I had known how much press this project would get,” rues Miller, “I would have paid more attention to the beetles´ appearance while naming them.
“Dr. Wheeler and I are both conservative-a relatively rare thing for a
biologist, and even rarer that we´d end up working together,” laughs Miller, when he explains why he and Wheeler chose to honor the political leaders
in such a manner. Thus Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush entered the binomial-nomenclature pantheon with the monikers Agathidium cheneyi, A. rumsfeldi and A. bushi. (For the record, most netizens believed that the naming was a sly practical joke against the president and his administration.)
It isn´t unusual for a newly discovered species to bear the name of a person-in 2001 a carnivorous dinosaur discovered in Madagascar was named (fittingly, we think) after Mark Knopfler, the singer/guitarist for the band Dire Straits. But the fact of the matter is, not everyone can get a dinosaur. For example, “Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson has a sucking louse named after him. (Quipped Larson of the honor: “I knew they weren´t going to give me a swan.”) And musician Frank Zappa will forever be associated with an entire genus of small fish (Zappa),
a spider that has markings on its abdomen that look like Zappa´s mustache (Pachygnatha zappa), a fossil snail (Amarautoma zappa) and a jellyfish (Phialella zappai-Zappa was so jazzed that, in 1988, he dedicated an entire concert to the jellyfish and the scientist who named it).
Curious if your favorite musician, artist or political leader has been granted a species name? Check out the Web site Curiosities of Biological Nomen-