That handsome critter above (the left-hand one) is Taylor Swift’s twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae – just named last month by Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek. It’s narrowly distributed in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee; but it might still look familiar, because its naming made a bit of a media splash (it is quite possibly, for example, the only millipede species to ever appear in Rolling Stone). Its namesake will certainly look familiar, as she makes a bit of a media splash about every other week.
In some circles, this naming will have led to some eye-rolling. Not everyone is a fan of species being given eponymous names of any sort; and species names for celebrities sometimes get dismissed as publicity stunts unworthy of serious science. I won’t go into these issues here, but if you’re interested, I do know of a book that takes a deep dive into eponymous naming, and I think it’s pretty interesting.
I’m a big fan of Taylor Swift’s millipede*, and of clever names-for-celebrities more generally. Here’s the thing: the naming of Nannaria swiftae got two things in the news: millipedes, and species discovery. Both matter. Millipedes can stand in for all the less appreciated creatures that share our planet but lack the charisma (or size) to generate their own attention. Sure, everyone thinks giant pandas are cute and we should protect them; but most of Earth’s biodiversity isn’t cuddly mammals, soaring birds, or breaching whales. And species discovery (and systematics, the broader discipline to which it belongs): what a critically important part of science! We share our planet with somewhere between 3 and 300 million species of multicellular life**. The fact that we can’t even narrow that number down is profoundly embarrassing, and also an enormous roadblock to any attempt to conserve our natural ecosystems. And yet species discovery and systematics are desperately underfunded and rarely get public attention. Cancer research is a giant panda; species discovery is a millipede.
So Nannaria swiftae told a lot of people three important things: that we share our planet with creatures we still know little or nothing about; that these mysterious creatures aren’t just in exotic rainforests or on remote coral reefs, but in Tennessee forests and our own back yards; and that there are scientists (like Hennen and coauthors) dedicated to documenting this diversity. Getting species discovery and systematics into Rolling Stone isn’t a publicity ‘stunt’ – but it is publicity, and our Earth’s biodiversity needs that. So I’m happy that a new millipede might hitchhike a little on Taylor Swift’s media coattails.
Let’s leave the last few words to Taylor Swift herself, who (perhaps inadvertently) has singled out the key questions in speciation and systematics:
If I can’t relate to you anymore
Then who am I related to?
– Taylor Swift, “Coney Island”, from Evermore (2020)
Those are things we now know about Nannaria swiftae, but that we’d like to know about millions more species.
© Stephen Heard April 26, 2022
Thanks to Andrea Wishart for suggesting the correct title for this post.
**^And we can’t even be that precise about single-celled life, not in small part because we have little idea how to count “species”, either philosophically or technologically, among bacteria and archaea…