Weird & Wild: What’s in an (Animal) Name?

What’s in an animal’s scientific name? Tributes to dead presidents, professions of love, and sometimes even adolescent humor.

I got to thinking about taxonomy—or how scientists name new species—after reading that a species of rugged darkling beetle, Stenomorpha roosevelti, had been named after President Theodore Roosevelt. (Not that “rugged darkling” isn’t cool enough in itself.)

The taxonomic system, developed by 18th-century Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus, breaks down organisms into seven major divisions called taxa, from kingdom to species. Every identified species on Earth also has a scientific name with two parts, which is called “binomial nomenclature.” (Read more about Linnaeus, the “name giver,” in National Geographic magazine.)

The new beetle’s name honors both Roosevelt’s dedication to conservation and the hundredth anniversary of a speech he gave in Tempe, Arizona, according to Arizona State University, whose scientists participated in the discovery.

Speaking of beetle honorifics, a new leaf beetle was recently named Arsipoda geographica, in recognition for the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society, society grantee Jesús Gómez-Zurita wrote this month on NewsWatch.

A new species of beaked toad nicknamed the Mr. Burns toad. Photograph courtesy Robin Moore, ILCP

Other scientists dub new species out of gratitude. Fedex, for instance, is lucky enough to be forever linked to a 300-million-year-old amphibian with bone-ripping tusks. Scientists named Fedexia strieglei as a gesture of thanks to the FedEx shipping company, which owns the land where the fossils were found, study co-author Dave Berman of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh told me in March 2010.

Likewise, the chocolate company Cadbury got a sweet nod in Kryoryctes cadburyi, a cat-size, quill-covered, dinosaur-era mammal named by paleontologists who subsisted mostly on their chocolate during a dig.

Pop culture can also provide nomenclative inspiration. Take Calumma tarzan, found recently in a tiny patch of forest—also called the Tarzan Forest—on the vast Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.  Study leader Philip-Sebastian Gehring, an evolutionary biologist at the Technical University of Braunschweig, thought the name might promote conservation of the reptile—after all, “Tarzan stands for a jungle hero and fighting for protecting the forest,” he said in 2010.

In western Colombia in 2010, scientists happened upon a new beaked toad that was nicknamed the Mr. Burns toad. The new species has a “long, pointy, snoutlike nose [that] reminds me of the nefarious villain Mr. Burns from The Simpsons television series,” Conservation International expedition leader Robin Moore said in a statement in November.

Dinosaurs in particular are often bestowed with fierce monikers, like Bistahieversor sealeyi, the 29-foot-long (9-meter-long) dinosaur that once reigned over the Wild West. Eversor means “destroyer” in Latin.

Brontomerus mcintoshi—”thunder thighs” in Greek—was a powerful plant-eater that used its superstrong thighs to kick and flail predators, I reported in February.

Also, everyone knows love can make you do crazy things—like name a strange, fleshy-lipped fish after your significant other.

Marine biologist Nicola King of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, named the Antarctic critter Pachycara cousinsi after her fiance, geophysicist Michael Cousins.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” King said in 2008.

But hands-down my favorite scientific name, at least for now, is Phallus drewesiia suggestively shaped mushroom named, with permission, for a distinguished herpetologist with an sense of humor—Robert Drewes of the California Academy of Sciences.

Phallus drewesii, a new species of stinkhorn fungus (read more). Photograph courtesy Brian A. Perry, University of Hawaii

Brendan Borrell, in his 2009 Scientific American blog post about P. drewesii‘s discovery, said it best: “Herpetologist Robert Drewes will forever be remembered for his two-inch Phallus.”

Check out more weird coverage on National Geographic News.


Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.