Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's in a name? Significant Etymologies of

Note: This discovery was mentioned by Kaitlyn on the smallpox blog.

In the March 2009 issue of Opuscula Philochemum, Kerry Knudsen, a scientist at UC-Riverside and a curator at the university's herbarium, reports his findings of Caloplaca obamae. The C. obamae is a new species of lichen found in the Santa Rosa faults. The lichen population has suffered extreme destruction due to overgrazing by cattle in the past few years so its discovery carries importance regarding 'natural restoration of biological crusts.' The species is garnering a lot of attention but not because of its evolutionary or scientific implications; rather, it's its etymology that's turning heads of scientists and the general population alike. 

 According to Knudsen:

 The species is named in honor of Barack Obama, President of the United States. The final collections of this species were made during the suspenseful final weeks of Obama’s campaign for president and this paper was written during the international jubilation over his election. The final draft was completed on the day of his inauguration. He is honored for his support of science and scientific education.

 When I entered 'new evolutionary discoveries' into the Google search box, the first three pages of returned results all regarded the C. Obamae's discovery. I was amazed. The lichen species carries little health or economical importance yet it stole the scientific headlines and even appeared in media spaces usually designated for news about trite celebrity scandals. Its popularity indicates the media power combining pop culture and science generates. Furthermore, this isn't the first time a president inspired the etymology of a new species. In 2005, a series of slimey, mold-eating beetles were named by Quentin Wheeler, professor of entomology at Arizona State University, after then President George W. Bush and members of his cabinet (Agathidium bushi, A. rumsfeldi and A. cheneyi). I decided to explore the naming methods for new species more closely. 

 In this Deep Sea News article ( HYPERLINK "" ), the three most common ways of naming species are mentioned. The first follows intuition, naming after distinct characteristics and traits. The second naming strategy is similar in that species are named after the location where they were discovered. Finally, the third method, and the one I'm most interested in, relies less on the actual species and more on the discoverer. This last method carry more creativity and cultural weight than Carl Linneus' standard binomial nomenclature protocol ever intended. 

 While many of these creative namings exist, I believe the most notable and entertaining are listed in this NPR article. HYPERLINK ""

 What I discovered through reading these different articles was how new species often bear names that mark the cultural climates and sentiments at the time of their discovery. For instance, in the Bush Administration-inspired line of beetles is one dubbed A. vaderi after the one of cinema's most memorable and sinister villains, a probable reflection of Wheeler's opinions towards the Bush Administration. Another example following this line of logic is Russell H. Flower's choice of Khruschevia Ridicula for a worm he discovered to voice his anti-Communist views and critique of Communist leader Nikolai Kruschev.

 Furthermore, names could also leave a memorable impression of the discoverer in history, evincing names as a personal marker in history. G.W. Kirkaldy left reminder of his flirtatious and womanizing ways by giving the plant insects he discovered monikers that begin with names of special lady friends and ending in 'chisme,' pronounced kiss me. 

 So in the coming weeks of class, when newly discovered species are reported, pay close attention to their names, as they might be more telling and culturally revealing than you first thought. 

Article: Knudsen, Kerry. "Caloplaca obamae, a new species from Santa Rosa Island, California." Opuscula Philolichenum 6 (2009): 37-40.

-Teresa Tarn

No comments: