Some biologists dream of discovering a new species so they can name it after a family member or valued colleague. Others prefer to seek broader appeal, such as the decision to name a newly discovered horseshoe crab Vaderlimulus tricki.
The name is not a random act of homage to the Star Wars villain/hero, instead being chosen because the crab's shell bears a likeness to Darth Vader's mask. Limulus is the name of a living genus of horseshoe crabs, which this discovery in some ways resembles.
Horseshoe crabs, which are actually more closely related to scorpions and spiders than true crabs, are among the planet's great survivors. Four species are still with us, although in some cases possibly not for much longer if we continue to over-harvest them for the antibacterial properties of their blood. Their most ancient members date back some 470 million years, but Vaderlimulus was found in Triassic deposits 245 million years old near Paris, Idaho. It is the first time a horseshoe crab has been found in what is now North America from that era.
The discovery was announced in Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, the world's oldest palaeontological journal.
Most horseshoe crabs look remarkably similar, whichever era they come from. “Vaderlimulus, however, has unusual body proportions that give it an odd appearance,” lead author Dr Allan Lerner of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science said in a statement.
As well as inspiring the name, this unusual shape, including large spines protruding from the side of its head, has led Vaderlimulus' discoverers to conclude it was part of the extinct Austrolimulidae family. The three other Triassic members of the family abandoned the crab's traditional marine habitats for fresh water, and adopted some odd-looking body modifications to do so. It is thought Vaderlimulus was an inhabitant of shallow estuaries along the west coast of Pangea, where fresh and salty water met.
It's not the first taxonomic honoring of Lord Vader. Indeed his wasp, beetle, and mite are all still with us. The mite, like the horseshoe crab, was given a Vader-inspired genus name. One day these could belong to many species. Still, none of the other animals named in his honor so closely resemble him. Giving catchy names to endangered species is thought to increase their chance of survival, but for poor Vanderlimulus, popular appeal comes a couple of hundred million years too late.
The former Anakin Skywalker is far from alone as the recipient of taxonomic honor. Biology and palaeontology abound with Yodas, Chewbaccas, and other residents of a galaxy far, far away.