Photo: Heteropoda davidbowie, by K.S. Seshadri via wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 4.0
The passing of David Bowie last week brought new attention to his life and his long career in the arts. Over at the Biodiversity Blog, Jeff Ollerton reminded us that one of the many ways Bowie is immortalized is in the naming of the huntsman spider Heteropoda davidbowie (by Peter Jäger).
A lot of species are cruising around unaware that they bear scientific, or “Latin”, names commemorating celebrities. Even in the spider genus Heteropoda, H. davidbowie is accompanied by H. ninahagen and H. udolindberg*. Wikipedia has a long list of others, and they range from the contemporary (the horsefly Scaptia beyonceae) to the ancient (the skipper Potanthus confucius) and from the etymologically appropriate (the turtle Psephophorus terrypratchetti) to the arbitrary (the trilobite Avalanchurus garfunkeli).
Is this a good idea? I’ve heard celebrity naming criticized on several grounds. Some think it trivializes naming, making the science of species discovery and biosystematics seem like unimportant play in the eyes of the public. Others have sniped that it’s only a cheap ploy for a little media attention, or just an attempt to meet the eponymous celebrity. Still others argue that most such names are doomed to obscurity and etymological unhelpfulness, because in a few years we’ll all have forgotten who the Kardashians were**. And when we don’t forget, there’s always the risk that it’s because we named a species for someone who turned out to be distinctly unpleasant.
I can see the point of these criticisms, but I can offer two counterarguments. First, we have millions of species to name. Some etymological creativity will be necessary unless we want the confusing situation of a “canadensis” and a “rubra” in every single genus. (Maybe you’re OK with that, but you won’t be OK with the chaos that ensues when species are transferred among genera and duplication requires new names.) Second, the argument about the ephemeral nature of celebrity surely applies just as much to names in honour of anybody else. We already have thousands of species named for people who’ve been forgotten. At worst, these become arbitrary (I bet not one entomologist in a thousand knows which Smith the mosquito Wyeomyia smithii celebrates). At best, though, they become treasures for the finding – rewarding those who go looking with stories of fascinating people and history, or of astonishing contributions to science made by professional scientists and amateurs alike. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ve seen hints of this – like here, with the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, preserved in butterflies named in her honour. Perhaps in 100 years the louse Strigiphilus garylarsoni will lead someone to rediscover The Far Side, or Heteropoda davidbowie will spark new interest in David Bowie’s music.
So, I lean to approving of celebrity naming – although I like it best when there’s a real connection between the species named and celebrity it’s named for***. But it’s certainly open to debate, and the real reason I wrote this post is to find out what you think. Please tell us in the Replies.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) January 21, 2016
Related post: Wonderful Latin Names, Part 3: Two creatures named ‘merianae‘
**At least, I sure hope so.
***Heteropoda davidbowie meets this criterion for me. I mean, come on; it’s a spider with orange hair named for a singer whose orange-haired alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, was backed up by The Spiders From Mars.