It was inevitable that the Wild Kingdom would discover e-commerce. Less obvious, though, was that a bunch of German taxonomists would pave the way. Last winter, with the knowledge that newly discovered species are vanishing faster than they can be catalogued, five research institutes formed the nonprofit Biopat—loosely, "Patrons for Biodiversity"—and launched www.biopat.de to sell the rights to name newly discovered flora and fauna for as little as $2,500 a pop. Within four months, the group had successfully e-tailed bug, flower, and critter monikers to a Wall Street broker, a solarium company, a Dutch university looking for a mascot, and some 15 other individuals and groups.
But unlike many dotcoms, Biopat isn't motivated by overnight riches. About 15,000 organisms die out or are lost each year, in part because they are unnamed, unclassified, and thus unprotected. Anyone with a mouse and a checkbook is welcome—especially celebrities, who need not look far for precedent. Some years back, University of Michigan professor Moises Kaplan called a tree frog Hyla stingiafter the pop icon Sting. And four years ago, German biologist and tennis fan Manfred Parth christened a snail Bufornia borisbeckeri.
Biopat hopes ordinary people and high-rollers alike will catch the naming bug, and that the cash will follow. It's badly needed: As funding and young talent flow increasingly toward the newer, sexier fields of biotech and genetics, it seems taxonomists themselves are an endangered species. "A lot of people think we're a bunch of moles in dusty basements looking at snakes," says Biopat copresident Claus Baetke. "But we can't continue working in anonymity."