Scientists should not name new species after celebrities in case they fall out of favour or are ‘cancelled’, an expert has said.
In recent years, a millipede has been named after Taylor Swift, a moth after Donald Trump and a rubber frog after Sir David Attenborough.
But Professor Robert Poulin, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, has said the trend should be avoided as it can lead to ‘nomenclatural regret’.
Derek Hennen, a researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, is a fan of Taylor Swift so he decided to name one of the millipede species Nannaria swiftae
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, he added: ‘One person’s hero is another’s villain, and even celebrities that are widely acclaimed today can fall from grace tomorrow, leading to ‘nomenclatural regret’ for those who immortalized their name in a species.’
Species’ names should instead refer to their shape or the place where they were found, he suggested.
He also lambasted scientists who name new bugs and creatures after their girlfriends, pets, wives, husbands and friends as ‘nepotism and cronyism’.
One or two species named after a famous scientist should be enough to honour them, and, he adds, if you are going to name a creature after a scientist, try to honour women scientists as much as you honour men – as most creatures named after people are named after male.
Dr Poulin said ‘there is no justification for repeatedly naming species after the same individual; certainly, a researcher whose name is already immortalised in the Latin name of two or three species does not need further eponymous recognition.’
New names have to be approved by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).
Neopalpa donaldtrumpi is a moth species found in Southern California and Northern Mexico
Naming a new species you discover after yourself is frowned upon and ‘simply not done’.
Dr Poulin said he examined 2,900 species of helminths – types of parasitic worms – discovered in the last 20 years.
Many of the worms were named after famous scientists he said.
But he added ‘we found a consistent gender bias’, with ‘male scientists being immortalised disproportionately more frequently than female scientists.
He said: ‘Finally, we found that the tendency for taxonomists to name new species after a family member or close friend has increased over the past 20 years.’
Describing the trend of naming creatures, he said 601 were given a name relating to their shape, 550 were named after the host organism, 616 after the locality where they were found, 596 after eminent scientists, while 528 were named after ‘something else’.
The last category included Constrictoanchoratus lemmyi, named after the late ‘Lemmy’ Kilminster, lead singer of Motorhead, and Baracktrema obamai, named after US president Barack Obama.
One was named after Eugene H Krabs, a character in Spongebob Squarepants, while another was named Glaurung, after a dragon featuring in Tolkien’s novel Silmarillion.
Seventy seven worms in the study were named after just one scientist, Dr Charles Bursey.
Although names do not have to convey information about the species, Dr Poulin urged scientists to go back to the days when the chosen name is ‘giving clues to what it looks like, what animal it lives in, or where in the world it may be found’, and this is ‘a simple and conservative approach that directly relates to the species itself.’
On the plus side, Dr Poulin acknowledged it can ‘draw public attention to the importance of species discovery and biodiversity’.
But he said, unlike scientists, ‘celebrities already achieve fame and global recognition without their name being immortalised in a new species.’
He added that ICZN also recommends ‘species names as far as possible should not cause offence.’ ‘It is unlikely that a famous politician or artist will appeal to everyone among cultures, across generations or socio-political divides, or over time.
He said that the same arguments apply to species named after eminent scientists, whose views or ethics may later come into question and ‘whose reputation may later be tarnished for professional or personal reasons’.
However, Dr Poulin recognised ‘most scientists get so little recognition for the major contributions they make to knowledge, that naming a new species after an eminent researcher seems more appropriate than naming it after a famous artist, athlete or politician.’
‘Cancelling’ the name of a species is no easy task, however.
In one notorious case, in the 1930s, a blind cave beetle found in Slovenia was named after Adolf Hitler.
The beetle is under threat of extinction as it is found in only five caverns and there is huge demand from neo Nazis to own the insect.
However, an attempt to have the beetle, Anophthalmus hitleri, renamed was rejected by the ICZN as it was correctly named at the time.