Are you familiar with the Darthvaderum mite?

The heart-shaped design on the wing case, typical of this new beetle, inspired Brett Ratcliffe, who named it Cyclocephala casanova.
Credit: © University of Nebraska State Museum (B. Ratcliffe)
Cyclocephala casanova
  • Cyclocephala casanova
  • Eupholus brossardi
  • Thaumatodryinus tuukkaraski
Are you familiar with the Darthvaderum mite?

Naming new insect species is the domain of taxonomists, scientists passionate about their work. To describe their discoveries (plant or animal), these researchers use either anatomical features – length or color – or the region or country of origin. They may also pay tribute to a friend, a colleague, or a well-known person. Over the years, some taxonomists have demonstrated a very special sense of humor...

Serious work

Insect naming is in Latin, the internationally recognized language of taxonomy. The first name (the genus) is written with a capitalized initial letter; the second (the species), with a lower-case letter. Both are in italics followed by the name of the author and the date of description; a human, for example, is designated Homo sapiens (Linné, 1758). This system of binomial classification, created by Sweden’s Carl von Linné (1707-1778), is governed by very strict rules (the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature) that are perhaps a little complex for the non-taxonomist.

When fiction gets involved...

Genus names coming from fiction or mythology are abundant and include Adonis (fish), Batman (fish), Cyrano (dragonfly), Dracula (orchid), Pinocchio (wasp) and Poseidon (crustacean). Quite a few are associated with the medical world: Amnesia (weevil), Anthrax (fly), Edema (butterfly), Dialysis (fly), Glaucoma (protozoan), Retina (butterfly), Thimus (wasp), and Tibia (seashell).

My family, your family

  • A famous scarab beetle expert (Oscar L. Cartwright) took inspiration from his family name for a genus and a species: Cartwrightia cartwrighti Cartwright.
  • Noticing a heart-shaped design on the wing case of a beetle, Brett Ratcliffe designated it Cyclocephala casanova.
  • After discovering several hundred new species of weevils, or curculionids, in Papua New Guinea, Alexander Riedel described them based on the family names of residents found in the local phone book.

Could you spell that for me?

Some genus names are very concise, while others are record beaters for length or complexity: Aa, Aaaba, Zyzzyzus, Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus, and Kimmeridgebrachypteraeschnidium. We should also mention the combinations Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis Dybowski, 1926 (the longest name of a crustacean) and Ia io Thomas, 1902 (the shortest name of a bat).

Bringing a smile to your lips

The imagination and humor of some scientists are expressed in many names: Abra cadabra (bivalve), Agra vation (beetle), Chaos chaos (ameba), Colon rectum (beetle), Extra extra (snail), La cerveza (butterfly), La cucaracha (butterfly), Riga toni (fly) et Tyrannasorus rex (beetle).

Let’s hear it for celebrity

Genus names taken from fictitious or real celebrities are a lot more important than people might think. Some examples: Casanovula (butterfly), Cheguevaria (firefly), Cocacolaria (millipede), Dalailama (butterfly), Houdinia (butterfly), Jaggermeryx (fossil) and Obamadon (fossil).

Species names honoring contemporaries are among the most common: Agathium bushi (George Bush), Agra eowilsoni (E.O. Wilson), Anelosimus nelsoni (Nelson Mandela), Anhanguera spielbergi (Steven Spielberg), Avalanchurus lennoni (John Lennon), A. starri (Ringo Starr), A. simoni & A. garfunkeli (Simon & Garfunkel), Struszia maccartneyi (Paul McCartney), Campsicnemus charliechaplini (Charlie Chaplin), Calponia harrisonfordi (Harrison Ford), Cirolana merucyi (Freddie Mercury), Eristalis alleni and E. gatesi (Paul Allen and Bill Gates), Leonardo davincii (Leonardo da Vinci), Mozartella beethoveni, (Mozart and Beethoven), Wallacea darwini (Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin).

Famous movies like Star Wars have inspired scientists to apply such names as the worm Yoda, the mite Darthvaderum and the trilobite Han solo.

Even hockey!

In 2015, a wasp found in Kenya, Thaumatodryinus tuukkaraski, was named in honor of Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. How long will we have to wait for a new species honoring the world’s best goalie, Carey Price?

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