As an “arts” student with two “science type” sisters I was always somewhat awed by the way they used to reel off the scientific names of plants, animals, and later in medicine. The names sounded like tongue twisters and I was most impressed at how they managed to remember these.
In a later avatar as environmental educator, I myself had to explore and discover the until-then mysterious realm of taxonomy and nomenclature. Over time I found that I was myself as easily saying Azadirachta indica and Phyllanthus emblica instead of neem and amla!
As an explorer of words I found it equally, if not more, fascinating to find out just how and why the flora and fauna got their scientific names. It appears that the first person to name, describe, and put an example of the species into a museum gets to name it. The name only gets changed if scientists learn something about the species evolutionary history to make them change the name.
How does this work? The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) founded in 1895, provides the standard framework, and regulates a uniform system of zoological nomenclature ensuring that every animal has a unique and universally accepted scientific name. As long as it is within the guidelines of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature and with no offensive wording, we can even have insects and butterflies named after our favourite teacher or parent! There are similar commissions for other areas like Botany and Entomology.
Since the scientist who discovers a species gets the right to name it, some scientists try to follow the traditional practice of incorporating an organism’s characteristics into its name, others give up and try something else. Scientists may be serious people, engaged in the pursuit of objective truth. But when it comes to naming species, they often let their hair down. There are species named for body parts and bodily functions, for celebrities, painters and writers, for cartoon characters and favourite sports. There are the literal as in Egretta egrettoides (literally, “egret that looks like an egret.”) There are creatures from Aa to Zyzzyx. There are the palindromic names Ababa and Xela alex.
Here are some really fun ones!
Aha ha: An Australian wasp named by entomologist Arnold Menke The story goes, Menke was in a debate with another research group over the validity of the species, and when he finally provided the definitive evidence, he exclaimed, “Aha ha!”
Ba humbugi: When scientists discovered this snail on the remote Pacific island, they opted to name him after the crankiest man in literature, Ebeneezer Scrooge whose trademark sneer was “Bah humbug”.
Ittibitium: Bittium is well-known genus of small sea snails and mollusks that are found all across the globe. So what name did scientists choose when they discovered a genus of mollusks even tinier than these? Ittibitium!
Ekrixinatosaurus calvo named “explosion-born lizard”because its bones were discovered during construction-related blasting.
Kamera lens: Although its discovery goes back to 1773, little was known about this single celled organism until 1991 when scientists must have thought, “Hey, we should use a camera lens to see this species better.”
It’s not scientists who have all the fun! Sometimes the naming rights for a new species are auctioned for a cause. Most recently the naming rights for a newly-discovered 10 cm amphibian were auctioned to raise money for the Rainforest Trust. The slippery little creature, found in the rainforests of Panama is blind, and likes to bury its head in the ground. Aidan Bell, co-founder of EnviroBuild, a sustainable building company, paid $25,000 for the right to name the creature after no other than President Donald Trump!
And what was his choice? Dermophis donaldtrumpi!
“Burrowing [his] head underground helps Trump when avoiding scientific consensus on anthropomorphic climate change […] Dermophis donaldtrumpi is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and is therefore in danger of becoming extinct as a direct result of its namesake’s climate policies.”
The scientists who made the discovery have agreed to use the name Dermophis donaldtrumpi when they officially publish the discovery in scientific literature.