Seeking a Genus for My Species

in Features
A drawing of a slime beetle. Frances Fawcett, courtesy of Cornell University News Service.

This summer, a 75-million year old dinosaur skeleton was baptized the mojoceratops by Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich. If one Yalie made his mark this way, I thought, surely another can as well.

A new genus- or species-group name should be short and euphonious in Latin.

I, Zara Kessler  have decided to make a name for myself. To go down in history. To be eternally remembered. You’ll find this nineteen-year-old in your textbooks one day. You’ll search for this college sophomore in the depths of the jungle. You’ll watch me swim by at the bottom of the sea, study me under your microscopes. One day you’ll write E. zarae in your notebooks. You’ll mark A. kessleri on your tree of life.

In forming a species-group name from the name of a woman, a final –a or –e may be elided for euphony, e.g., josephineae or josephinae (Josephine).

I have set out to have a species named after me, to be memorialized by a zoological specimen. In the last two hundred years, about 1.8 million species have been named; and yet, still millions more await classification.  Most such creatures will be stuck with banal titles, Latin words describing where they were found or what they look like. Some fortunate creatures will instead be named after people. And soon, one particularly lucky young species will bear my name.

The honor of becoming a zoological namesake has been bestowed upon all types of living individuals, even laboratory-fearing laypeople like myself. I email Dr. Eric Sargis, Yale Professor of Anthropology and curator at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, to inquire about the route to Linnaean permanence. He responds with a single sentence: “People name species after distinguished colleagues (see etymology for Dryomomys szalayi in attached), not themselves.”

In forming a zoological name from a compound personal name, a zoologist should consider using only one of the components, giving preference to the better known, e.g. bakeri (Benthune Baker), guerini (Guérin Méniville).

I may not be a “distinguished colleague” but I’m pretty sure this campus holds a couple of the sort.  Unwilling to give up my quest, I set out to find someone who has already achieved taxonomic recognition.

Enter Carl Zimmer, Yale lecturer, famed science writer, and namesake of parasitic tapeworm Acanthobothrium zimmeri (the genus name is typically set, leaving only the species name up for grabs).  “It’s really nice,” says Zimmer. “It gives me a surprisingly warm feeling to know that there’s a tapeworm out there that’s got my name.” Zimmer’s Linnaean legacy—A. zimmeri’s name was officially published earlier this year—was the gift of Carrie Fyler, a student who was inspired to become a parasitologist by Zimmer’s book Parasite Rex. When she set about the detailed and highly formal process of naming shark parasites a few years later, Fyler figured she’d return the favor to Zimmer.

Zimmer doesn’t take his taxonomical fame for granted: “It’s neat to know that you’re in the books somewhere, even if it’s a parasitology textbook or something.” As for my own entrance into the books, though, Zimmer offers minimal assistance.  He does admit that even Linnaeus, the patriarch of taxonomy, had some fun with his names: “Apparently, when he would describe a really noxious weed he would sometimes name it after his enemies.” Zimmer also narrows my competition when he reveals that, as far he knows, egomaniacal taxonomists are not allowed to name species after themselves. I’m relieved by the his confession that he would have trouble identifying A. zimmeri from among a lineup of tapeworms. Zimmer also has to cope with every seasoned namesake’s fear of, dare I say it, extinction. If A. zimmeri were to die out, Zimmer admits,“You know I would be very sad.”

Despite Zimmer’s wisdom, he’s unable to lead me far on my quest. His tapeworm was a gift, and thus he has little counsel to impart on how to acquire a species without penning a scientific tome.

In forming a species-group name from your own name you’ll need a friend. That friend should be a skilled in the research of tiny creatures, e.g. an entomologist or parasitologist.

I need to make some friends. I summon all my charm and cunning, and I proceed. I must not solicit someone who’s already achieved nomenclatural triumph but instead find someone who baptizes creatures himself. I try for Quentin Wheeler, Vice President and Dean at Arizona State University. And insect taxonomist extraordinaire.

Wheeler is famous for leading celebrities into the taxonomic world, much to the chagrin of his more straight-laced colleagues. His retort is that he works in an underfunded, unnoticed field: “Why not spin it in such a way so that it brings media attention to the whole effort?”  Hence, since 2005, he’s helped christen beetles for George Bush (Agathidium bushi), Darth Vader (Agathidium vaderi), and Stephen Colbert (Agaporomorphus colberti), among many others.

“President Bush phoned me up to thank me for the honor of having a species named after him–that was a thrill–and actually followed up with a little handwritten note. And, I daresay–these were slime-mold feeding beetles –so I like to say that this is probably the only time in the history of the Union that the word ‘slime-mold’ was penned in the Oval Office,” Wheeler proudly announces.

I don’t see why Bush and Colbert, whose names will be memorialized regardless of their entrance into zoological taxonomy, need species when so many of us underdogs want to be remembered. I’m also resentful of Wheeler’s nonchalant comment that he’s got around four or six species named after him. He has stopped keeping track. He doesn’t fail, though, to rub it in: “You know it’s your little piece of immortality.” Yours if you can get it, Wheeler.

But as would any noble crusader, I lay aside my jealousy and frustration and concentrate on the task at hand: persuade this patronymic patriarch to put zarae in the books. After 15 minutes on the phone, I finally pop the question to Wheeler: Let’s just say I wanted to name a species after myself. How would I do it?

“Do you have a checkbook handy?” he laughs. I’m on board, reaching into my pocket. Sure I’ll pay twenty, even fifty, dollars for immortality. Sign me up. I’ll give up Starbucks for a few weeks. Welcome to the world young T. zarae.

“You know it’s funny, I led a fundraising tour cruise to the Galapagos this spring. And one of the guests along on the yacht told me—and I haven’t done it yet but I’m going to follow through—she said she would gladly pay $5,000 to have a species named after her,” Wheeler explains. “And I told her as soon as I found one elegant enough I’d be back.” Maybe I’ll have to give up Starbucks for life.

Or maybe I’ll just have to give up. But Wheeler admits, though his price is high, he’s not my only hope. Anyone who describes a species, follows the rules laid out by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, and publishes his work in the appropriate place, can be a taxonomist. “So frankly the only gatekeeper is that individual. Someone might do it for a pint of good beer, I don’t know, it’s entirely up to them.”

If only I could find that person, I’d be happy to provide him with several pints. Then again, marrying Wheeler might be a cheaper option. “I named one species after my wife and another one after my ex-wife!” he laughs.  “So there’s all kinds of possibility.”

“So my best bet is to befriend someone who finds species often?”

“Yes, absolutely the best way to go!”

But Dean Wheeler, I want to plead, I was hoping you could be that friend. “Keep me in mind if you’re naming any new species!” I make a last pathetic stab.

“Will do. Absolutely.” Wheeler’s reply seems less than sincere.

In forming a zoological name from your own personal name, you need some cash. A few hundred thousand dollars would be helpful, though you may be able to get by with only a couple of thousands.

Perhaps trying to avoid becoming my taxonomic sponsor, Wheeler later emails me a set of hyperlinks, which usher me to my next destination: organizations that formally sell species.

First, there’s a stop in Germany, which boasts BIOPAT (Patrons for Biodiversity), a nonprofit group founded in 1999. “Name a frog or an orchid!” flashes across my computer screen as I arrive at the BIOPAT website. “Names are meaningless?’ Not at all since a name identifies individuals,” it clarifies. “With a single donation of at least 2.600 Euro to BIOPAT e.V. you can eternalize a name of your choice by baptizing a newly discovered plant or animal species.”

Despite this homepage, Dr. Jorn Kohler, a zoologist at the National Hessian Museum, insists that BIOPAT isn’t really selling anything: “It’s a honor for support of nature conservation and biodiversity research via a donation (acquiring funds for these fields is the major aim of BIOPAT).” But, as I browse the site’s catalogue of species, it’s crystal clear that for 2.600 Euro, the beetle, Penthoscarpha zarae, can be mine. Upgrade to 3.500 Euro, and I can instead christen, Milichiella zarae, a fifteen to twenty million-year-old fly species. A Google currency converter computes that the cheaper beetle will cost me $3,843. Thanks, but no thanks.

Hoping that Europeans attach a higher value to taxonomy than Americans do, I travel closer to home seeking a better deal. San Diego holds the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with a Name-a-Species program and a website asserting, “Every year collections staff and researchers discover new species of marine creatures. The cost to name one of Scripps’s newly discovered species ranges from $5,000 to $100,000.”  I start to hope that with a phone call to Greg Rouse, curator of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection at the Institution, something cheaper can be arranged for an enthusiastic Linneaus fan.

Not exactly. Rouse explains to me that when he finds a new species, if it seems suitable, he turns it over to the development office: “What we normally want is something that looks pretty good, that we have a good photograph of.” If no one purchases the species, Rouse doesn’t delay the publication of his scientific paper nor does he lower the price to increase demand (apparently he’s not in contact with the Scripps Economics department). Instead, he names the species himself. Since the Scripps project began in 2008, only one $10,000 worm and three $5,000 species have been sold. Rouse doesn’t see the pricing scheme as a problem. The problem, he gripes, is that he underwater invertebrates, “People are mainly attracted to vertebrates. It’s difficult to sell a worm.”  When I press him to expound on the exorbitant pricing, hoping he’ll offer me a discount for my valiant efforts, he only grows perturbed. “It costs a lot of money for us to name the species. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.”

Apparently, finding an economical means of achieving taxonomical permanence also takes a lot time and effort, and I’m growing tired.  Perhaps sensing my impatience, Rouse explains that, in the past, people have come to him, explaining their desire to name a species and support the project–but without the requisite 5,000-plus dollars. He soothes them by telling them not to fret but instead to start saving. With millions of species to name, a worm will be waiting when you can cough up the cash.

But I’ve no patience for starting a piggy bank. Wanting my species and wanting her now, I’m contemplating backtracking to bargain with Wheeler. With a little persuasion, surely I can get him down to a couple hundred dollars and few pints of his favorite beer. But first there’s one last store to visit. I log onto the aptly-titled Nameaspecies.com, the brainchild of 24-year-old Hunter Williams.

When the website loads, I immediately see her. A charming tan-colored midge. For $500 she’s mine. For $500, I can have Telmatogeton zarae, a two-winged fly from Iceland. She’s not pretty, enchanting, or particularly exotic. She also doesn’t cost the fifty dollars I set out to spend. But I have four months until Chanukah. Just enough time to convince my parents that all I want for the holidays is to be memorialized by taxonomic offspring.

While completing a Master’s Degree at Cambridge University, Williams became fascinated by the fact that his friend, a paleobiology PhD student, had the chance to name some species. But Williams never garnered a namesake for himself, he laments, because his pal soon switched fields. Williams realized that graduate students, always in need of a little extra cash, name many of the world’s newest species and got the idea to launch a site to sell more affordable species names. “I thought there was a real opportunity for a retail way for average people to be participating and supporting science,” Williams says. Finally, someone has heard my wallet’s cries.

“I wound up,” he continues, “only being able to find one scientist, a Norwegian entomologist.” The Norwegian handed over information about a handful of insects he needed to name in his next paper, and Williams agreed that he would give him a sizeable portion of the proceeds, which due to William’s focus on accessibility and the species’ lackluster natures, would be meager: “I didn’t think people were going to be willing to spend more than a few hundred dollars for a microbe or a midge.” Nameaspecies.com launched in August 2008, to the delight of bargain species-shoppers like myself.

But the fate of young T. zarae is less delightful. Midway through our conversation, Williams admits that none of the initial species up for sale sold, perhaps due their lack of “sexiness.” Had I clicked Telmatogeton, I would have found that she’s been removed from the website’s inventory. In fact, none of the website’s species are up for sale any more. The Norwegian scientist published his paper; the nameless flies were baptized.  Williams is now a strategy consultant in Shanghai, lamenting the pending extinction of his website:  “It’s a concept that is currently in mothballs.” Goodbye T. kesslerae. Good thing I hadn’t ordered the personalized stationery yet.

So what, Mr. Williams, should a weary traveler with a college student’s budget do about her aspirations for taxonomic immortality?

“Meet some grad students who are in the right kinds of fields and get to be their girlfriends – that may be a pretty good way.”

A new genus- or species-group name is all but impossible to acquire for oneself cheaply.

I’m ready to log onto Facebook to scrutinize the profiles of graduate students in paleobiology and entomology.  And then an email brings me within sight of the promised land, swarming with bugs and beetles. It’s the messianic Hunter Williams, hailing from Shanghai.  He wonders if I want to be put in contact with his friend the Norwegian entomologist.  “If you would like a species named after you and do not mind that it is a midge, he might be willing to oblige.”

Yes please, pretty please, contact the Norwegian. I reply immediately. After weeks of anxious waiting and a number of insistent reminders, Williams finally fulfills his promise. Apologizing for his tardiness (he’s been busy at his real job), Williams copies me on an email to the one-and-only Professor Saether, requesting that the Norwegian entomologist speak with me. Microscopic bugs and parasites again fly through my daily thoughts. But pleading emails from Williams and from myself, remain unanswered by the Norwegian; perhaps Saether deems neither of us his “distinguished colleagues.”

I’ve been on the road towards taxonomic permanence for over two months, and I don’t feel any closer to the zoological Holy Grail than when I began. Late one November evening, I send Saether one last beseeching email, for closure more than anything else. Then I purge all memories of the Norwegian and his midges.

I wake up the next morning to find Saether’s name in my e-mailbox and curse my rash actions of the previous night. What kind of crusader gives up on a quest? When did I lose my zoological zeal? My heart beats as I open up what just may be my acceptance letter into the world of taxonomy.

“I did not answer you previously since I was quite busy and I did not have anything to say except the whole business seems to have been a failure,” Saether’s message opens.  I pray that the next sentence reads Nevertheless would you prefer to bestow your name on a midge from Iceland or would one from an island in the South Atlantic better suit your tastes? It does not. Instead, the Norwegian entomologist launches into his own sad tale. A couple of years ago, he officially bid adieu to the world of science, and, in his retirement, lost his funding.  Post-retirement and still christening little bugs, Saether hesitantly entered the world of species selling as a way of amassing money for his work. But when no one wanted to buy his midges, he baptized them himself. Changing their names now would be an arduous process.

Saether makes no offers to name a species after me and, in fact, he seems to be contemplating withdrawal from commercial taxonomy all together. When I close my laptop, there is only one word of his email that lingers in my mind: retirement.

A new genus- or species-group name is not all that is out there.

To save the day, I turn to Bond. Jason Bond.  He’s a scientist, he names species, and maybe, just maybe, he’s the one who’ll name mine. I first enter negotiations with Bond, a biologist at East Carolina University, while waiting for the Norwegian to answer his email. Before Wheeler presented Colbert with his beetle, Bond had gifted him an arachnid Bond baptized A. stephencolberti after a spider named for Neil Young provoked Colbert to complain on national TV that he wasn’t being rightfully honored by the scientific community. If Bond heeded Colbert’s cries for taxonomical renown; perhaps he might also respond to mine. As long as the written tale of my taxonomical travels is able to garner him enough press, that is.  “I’m always sort of game for a gimmick or two if it has the potential for highlighting the importance of biodiversity and taxonomic research and that sort of thing,” he says.  If I can publish my quest on a large enough scale, my odds look good.

I rush out and procure my tale a spot in the next issue of The New Journal. I can already picture Sargis’ face when he cracks open the magazine only to find that, lo and behold, a spider has been christened T. kesslerae. I excitedly email Bond to tell him that soon all of Yale will be reading of his spiders. Hoping to cement my chances for success, I mention that I’ll still shop my piece to some Manhattan publications and that I’ll also be willing to pay some fee for my entrance into the annals of zoology.

But apparently, campus publications can’t compare to the Colbert Show. Bond’s response doesn’t mention  our previous plan to barter publicity for a personalized spider. Instead he assures me that for $1,500 (the price his last spider went for at an auction), an arachnid can be mine. If I prefer goods to cash, I can also purchase a $3,000 Apple Dual Quad Core Machine for his lab: “Sometimes with a little creativity it can be easier to come up with something like a computer rather than cash,” he concludes the e-mail.

I like to think of myself as creative, but so far that trait has yet to spawn computers. I politely explain to Bond that I don’t have the financial resources for his games. Enough is enough. If the taxonomical community doesn’t find me, and the publications for which I work, distinguished, famous, or wealthy enough, I’ll find another means of immortality.

I end up paying only $18.95 for T. zarae. I order her online, and immediately receive her Birth Certificate in PDF form, to print out as many times as I desire.

“Let it be known that the star located at RA 00:25:14.030 and Declination -01:49:58.14 will hereby be known as T. zarae,” the page proudly reads.

Months ago, a friend of mine had suggested star naming, open to any web user for an affordable price, as an alluring alternative to species hunting. Offended at the suggestion that I might be unsuccessful in my taxonomical quest, I banished it, cursing the individual’s brazen attempt to distract a noble crusader of Linnaeus. But with a collection of failed mentors lying in the dust and the slim wallet of a college student, christening a star emerged as the most brilliant plan. Literally. Of course, just one name came to mind: T. zarae.  Linnaeus would be so proud.

Bond later circles back to tell me that he understands my financial woes and would be willing to compromise on a modest contribution and a widely read article as payment for a species. But I don’t need his creepy crawlers. I’ve gone cosmic.
T. zarae is not a parasite, a spider, or a midge. Younameastar.com won’t even let me italicize her name. I can’t locate my celestial child in the night sky. But she’s mine. Forever.

T. zarae doesn’t live or breathe.  You won’t find her listed in your biology textbook or buried in the depths of the jungle. Instead, she’s high up in the night sky, a beacon of hope for lost travelers. She shines above Sargis’ New Haven abode, Saether’s Norweigan lab, and Bond’s North Carolina office. T. zarae can’t be squished under a shoe or served on a plate.
And T. zarae can never go extinct.

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