Wednesday, December 15, 2010
What's in a (species) name?
Meet Lepidocephalichthys zeppelini, a newly identified species of fish, named after Led Zeppelin. Why? An Auburn University graduate student thought the fish's pectoral fin looked like Jimmy Page's double neck guitar.
It's a quirky way to name a species, but Lepidocephalichthys zeppelini is certainly not the most flippant or goofy Latin name to come along. There are fungus beetles known as Gelae belae and Gelae donut. Adonnadonna primadonna is an extinct fossil algae named for a 1963 pop song by Dion and The Belmonts. And Volva volva volva probably gives you some clue as to how insistent Linnaeus was that a certain sea snail had a shell shaped like a part of a lady's anatomy.
Institutions have even auctioned off naming rights to the highest bidder, using the funds to pay for conservation efforts and further research. That's how we ended up with a monkey named after the Golden Palace online casino.
Has science no shame? Are there no rules to this naming system? Quite the contrary. There is, in fact, an entire book of binding codes and an international organization to enforce them. But here's the thing—those rules are mostly related to working out who gets naming rights, and making sure that everybody is using a standard style. At the same time, there are lots and lots of species that need unique names. Thus, a certain level of creative silliness gets through. That said, there are limits. Really obvious jokes are frowned upon these days. As are rude gestures. Back in the day, Linnaeus used species names to construct elaborate insults against his enemies (and, presumably, the species being named). You can't do that anymore. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature will also send you back to the drawing board if your proposed name is deemed too unpronounceable.