There’s a myth out there that scientists are always very serious and perhaps even slightly boring. Fortunately, this isn’t even remotely true. Prime evidence for how hilariously awesome scientists are is found right in scientific journals, based on what they have decided to name newly-discovered species. This has already been covered on IFLS when dealing with names of genes, but scientists also take creative license when naming entire organisms as well.
There are a ton of organisms that have been named after celebrities, politicians, and even works of fiction. I would never have time to go through all of them, so here are some of my favorites:
Kooteninchele deppi was a 4-centimeter-long (1.6-inch-long) sea creature that lived about 505 million years ago in the Cambrian period. It most likely patrolled shallow waters hunting and scavenging for meals. K. deppi is an ancestor of crabs and lobsters, which is not really surprising given the creature’s pincers. These are so distinct, David Legg from Imperial College London thought the creature resembled Edward Scissorhands and assigned a name as a tribute to Johnny Depp for such a memorable role.
Carmenelectra shechisme is an extinct fly species that is the sole representative of its genus. At only about 1-3 millimeters long, it is extremely small. All of the examined individuals were found in amber. In 2002, Neal Evenhuis published the existence of the fly and decided to name it after the model/actress Carmen Electra. The best thing about Carmenelectra shechisme is the pronunciation: “Carmen Electra, she-kiss-me.” According to Neal, he had tried to contact her about immortalizing her in science (and perhaps wanting to make good on the fly’s name) though he has not heard from her.
This past summer, a jellyfish was discovered that would represent a new species, genus, and suborder. It was found in the Brunswick River in New South Wales, Australia. Lisa-ann Gershwin and Peter Davie, both of the Queensland Museum, decided to name the grape-sized discovery after the catchphrase of their favorite television character, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Bazinga rieki isn’t just an homage to everyone’s favorite fictional theoretical physicist, as “bazinga” also refers to a harp, which the jellyfish quite strongly resembles. It’s a win-win.
It isn’t just modern scientists making light of their scientific discoveries. In 1977, Arnold Menke named a wasp Aha ha to capture the excitement of getting to say “Aha!” when finding a new species. In fact, Menke even began the title of his paper “Aha, a new genus of Australian Sphecidae” to help make light of the name. He liked the joke so much, he even had a novelty license plate that read “AHAHA” on his car. The wasp itself belongs to the Specidae family of wasps. The members of this family are quite diverse and include many different body types and breeding styles.
Dracorex hogwartsia, “the dragon king of Hogwarts” is a dinosaur that was discovered by Bob Bakker and Rob Sullivan in 2006. Though the dinosaur was an herbivore, the shape of the head resembles a ferocious fire-breathing dragon. There is some controversy surrounding this species, as some skeptics think it might be the juvenile of a different dinosaur that had been described over 15 years earlier, though the debate has not yet been settled. The specific name hogwartsia is a tribute to Harry Potter’s alma matter. The title is fun and fitting, given that the bones are on display at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Harry Potter’s author J.K. Rowling adores the name: “The naming of Dracorex hogwartsia is easily the most unexpected honor to have come my way since the publication of the Harry Potter books! I am absolutely thrilled to think that Hogwarts has made a small claw mark upon the fascinating world of dinosaurs.”
The genus name Medusaceratops which translates to “Medusa horned face” gives quite a mental image of the dinosaur described in 2010 by Michael Ryan, after having been misclassified for several years. Medusa is a hideous creature from greek mythology who had snakes for hair and could turn people to stone with just a look. Medusaceratops has large horns around the frill, which sort of look like snakes sticking out from around the head. The specific name lokii was a nod to Loki of Norse mythology, who was a half-god known for causing trouble. Because the dinosaur itself had caused scientists a great deal of grief while trying to identify it, the name seemed to fit.
Medusaceratops lived over 77 million years ago and is one of the oldest members of the Ceratopsia family. The most famous member of this family is the triceratops, though they did not were separated by about 10 million years.
Forget any qualms you have about Christmas being too commercialized, Callicebus aureipalatti was sold out literally, though it was for a worthy cause. When a new species of monkey was described as a new species in South America in 2004, the scientists decided to forego their right to name the monkey and auctioned off the name instead with the proceeds going to FUNDESNAP, a nonprofit conservation organization that works where the monkey was found. The winning bid of $650,000 gained the right to name the monkey Callicebus aureipalatti. Aureipalatti translates to “of the golden palace” to commemorate the auction’s winner, the gambling website GoldenPalace.com The GoldenPalace.com monkey lives in the foothills of the Andes mountains and lives in monogamous pairs.
Annuntidiogenes worfi is a hermit crab named after Lieutenant Worf from Star Trek. A. worfi lived 105.3 to 94.3 million years ago and the fossil was found in Spain. The crab was likely carnivorous. The hermit crab’s anterior gastric region is covered in several ornamental ridges, which reminded René H.B. Fraaije’s research team of the shape of a Klingon’s forehead. If you’re going to name something after a Klingon, Worf is obviously the way to go. Nobody should name anything after Duras. I hate that guy.
In 2011, a mushroom found in Hawaii was described for the first time. The genus Spongiforma was described only two years earlier with the discovery of the only other member, S. thailandica. S. squarepantsii is an homage to the character SpongeBob SquarePants. The mushroom has a very cartoony-spongy look to it, making the genus name a given and the specific name incredibly awesome.