Millipede (Taylor’s Version)

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

Images: Nannaria swiftae © Derek Hennen et al. CC BY 4.0, from Hennen et al. 2002, Zookeys 1096:17-118; Taylor Swift © Paolo Villanueva CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com

Thanks to Andrea Wishart for suggesting the correct title for this post.


*^Am I a big fan of Taylor Swift herself? Well: her two 2020 “pandemic albums”, Folklore and Evermore, are fantastic. When her earlier work plays, I will sometimes not press “skip”.

**^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…

 

8 thoughts on “Millipede (Taylor’s Version)

  1. Barry Goldman

    fascinating that in the past few decades we’ve realized we don’t know what most of the species on earth are, and we don’t know what most of the matter in the universe is. I’d wager that we now know how BAD we are at detecting microbes in the environment (and deeper and deeper into ocean and rock) that we can guess we don’t even know where most of the biomass is nor whether there is alternate life down there without (or with alternative) DNA (our only way to detect most microbes). Exciting times.

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    So, a publicity stunt that publicizes a good cause is not a publicity stunt? 🙂

    Now I want to troll you by dreaming up hypothetical namings that you would consider publicity stunts. If somebody discovers a cute new cat species in the Amazon rainforest, and names it for Anne Hathaway in honor of her having played Catwoman in a movie, is that a publicity stunt?

    What if many taxonomists only consider the new cat “species” a subspecies of margay, or just a locally adapted variant of margay? That is, they think the taxonomists who named the new species are just splitting the margay (and naming it after a celebrity) for the sake of publicizing taxonomy and biodiversity?

    What if a bunch of taxonomists all coordinate to announce a bunch of newly-discovered species at once, and name them *all* after Taylor Swift? Perhaps to honor her unintentional-yet-pithy summary of systematics, which you quoted in the post?

    Feel free to dismiss me by noting that these sorts of hypothetical edge cases don’t make for a good starting point for discussion (much like how hard cases don’t make good law). 🙂

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Geez, Jeremy, as trolling goes this is weak tea 🙂

      First cat scenario: utterly routine kind of celebrity naming, and clever. What’s not to love?

      Second cat scenario: given that fights over oversplitting and overlumping happen all the time, I assume what you’re getting at is deliberate falsification of evidence to support species status so that you can apply the celebrity name? That’s scientific fraud, obviously, and wrong – but you’ve probably picked the LEAST likely motivation for fraud ever. Not in mammals, to be sure, but in actually diverse groups like insects the problem isn’t finding some new species to which you can apply your clever name; it’s finding enough names to apply to the avalanche of new species you’ve discovered!

      Third “naming conspiracy” scenario: that’s clever! This comes closest to what I might call a publicity “stunt”, but I’d have a hard time objecting unless we’re talking many dozens of species. In which case the objection is less the publicity, and more that six would have done it, and there are other deserving eponyms, and we could use the opportunity to diversify our set of eponyms a little. (Yes, this clashes somewhat with my point in #2).

      Interestingly, I think people who work with birds and mammals (I know that’s not you) are much more conservative with what they think “proper” namings are – presumably because species to be named are a very limited resource. Folks working with insects, spiders, mites, etc. are desperate for names. I should quantify this intuition and publish it – I certainly publish enough weird stuff these days, that would fit right in!

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Must…troll…harder

        Interesting remark about conservatism in naming among ornithologists and mammalogists vs. among entomologists. I’d be very curious to see supporting evidence (a poll?).

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  3. Jeremy Fox

    What are your thoughts on cases where someone names a species in an attempt to get a bit of publicity, and it doesn’t work? Or even backfires? I’m thinking in particular of cases in which the attempt at publicity fails/backfires for some reason other than bad luck. Say, somebody names another new millipede after Taylor Swift, and the press release gets ignored because yawn, who cares about a boring copycat celebrity naming? Or somebody names a new species after a “celebrity” who’s not actually all that famous, and so there’s no publicity?* Or somebody names a new species after a celebrity who’s behaved badly, and so gets bad publicity? Does an attempt to gain publicity become a publicity “stunt” if it’s ineffective or badly executed?

    *[Older Gen-X taxonomist who named a new dust mite after Mary Jo Pehl in the hopes of drumming up some publicity]: “What do you mean Mary Jo Pehl isn’t much of a celebrity? She was on MST3K!”

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  4. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    I’m impressed by how hard you’re working to find the bad outcomes, Jeremy!

    Re: celebrity who behaves badly: yup, we’ve got those names, like the mite Funkotriplogynium iagobadius (iagobadius = James Brown). Or the Sex Pistols’ trilobites. Or the beetle named after James Watson. I’ll refer you to my book, where I treat this at some length.

    Re: all your other cases – OK, so the outcome wasn’t an awesome outpouring of support for taxonomy. Not all sliders are swings-and-misses; good pitchers still throw them. Imagine the worst case: nobody recognizes the reference in Funkotriplogynium pehli. What cost has been incurred? And there’s a loose thread for someone to tug on in 50 years (and they can marvel over the phenomenon that was MST3K).

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  5. Pingback: Why I write the Introduction last | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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