Changing Planet

19 Ferns Go Gaga!

Note the Resemblance: Lady Gaga at the 2010 Grammy Awards and her gametophyte (Image: Duke University)

Famous for infectious dance tunes and memorable meaty fashion choices, superstar Lady Gaga has another claim to fame: botany.

Nineteen species of fern native to Central and South America, Mexico, Arizona, and Texas are being named in her honor by the Duke University research team who found them. Their findings will be published in the journal Systematic Botany.

What’s in a Name?

Two of the species are new discoveries: Gaga germanotta from Costa Rica and Mexican species Gaga monstraparva. The Costa Rican fern bears Gaga’s family name (she was born Stefani Germanotta), while the Mexican fern is named for her fans, whom she affectionately calls “Little Monsters.”

The rest of the Gaga ferns species are being reclassified by the team from Duke. They had previously been assigned to the genus Cheilanthes based on their outward appearance. But graduate student Fay-Wei Li’s detailed analysis of DNA showed they’re distinct and deserving of their own Gaga genus.

Gaga germanotta, I presume? Fay-Wei Li discovers the fern alive in Costa Rica. (Image: Duke University)

Born This Way

So why were the ferns named this way?

The Duke research team admit they are big fans. “We often listen to her music while we do our research,” says study leader Kathleen Pryer, a Duke University biology professor and director of the Duke Herbarium. “We think that her second album, ‘Born this Way,’ is enormously empowering, especially for disenfranchised people and communities like LGBT, ethnic groups, women—and scientists who study odd ferns!” Pryer said.

“We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression. And as we started to consider it, the ferns themselves gave us more reasons why it was a good choice.”

Gaga for Gametophytes

Lady Gaga is known for blurring gender lines, and this fern species does too.

“The biology of these ferns is exceptionally obscure and blurred by sexual crossing between species,” Pryer said. “They have high numbers of chromosomes and asexuality that can lead to offspring that are genetically identical to the parent plant.”

Most ferns are “homosporous,” and the Gaga group is no exception. Their spores germinate into heart-shaped plants called gametophytes, which can be female, male, or even bisexual. The plant adapts its reproductive needs to the conditions around it: When conditions are right, they exchange sperm between gametophytes, but when necessary they sometimes can also self-fertilize to produce a new fern.

The Gaga Connection

The “Gaga Connection” to the ferns could be seen as early as 2010 when she performed at the Grammy Awards. Her heart-shaped, turquoise costume looked, to Pryer’s trained eyes, exactly like the ferns’ gametophyte.

But it was the DNA analysis sealed the deal. Graduate student Li scanned the DNA of the ferns being considered for the new genus and found “GAGA” spelled out in the DNA base pairs as a signature that distinguishes this group of ferns from all others.

Focusing on content that entertains, astounds, and informs, Amy Briggs is freelance writer and former senior editor with National Geographic Books . The author of National Geographic Angry Birds Space, Briggs worked closely with National Geographic NewsWatch's David Braun on National Geographic Tales of the Weird. Excited by all things trivial, odd, and just unusual, she lives in Virginia with her family.

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