Survival of the A-List

Scientists turn to Hollywood for the origin of species names

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STAYING ABREAST OF THE WORLD'S NEWLY DISCOVERED SPECIES can be as tough as keeping up with the gossip rags. Oddly enough, the names involved are often the same. A look at the Zoological Record for 2005—;a banner year that added nearly 17,000 new animal species, both extant and extinct—;shows that scientists might be as pop-culture-obsessed as the rest of America. "The actual process by which people name things is almost a complete free-for-all," says Andrew Polaszek, executive secretary of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which maintains the guidelines for logging new critters. "Sometimes it gets a little silly." Take Samuel Turvey, a British paleontologist who turned to Muppet Show hecklers Waldorf and Statler (the two old guys in the balcony) and Harrison Ford's swashbuckling Han Solo in naming Geragnostus waldorfstatleri and Han solo, two extinct trilobites he discovered in China. "All the characters' names in Star Wars sound like scientific names anyway," says Turvey. For something completely different, Urs Thalmann and Thomas Geissmann, of the University of Zürich, named the lemur species Avahi cleesei in honor of Monty Python funnyman John Cleese, who once hosted a documentary about lemurs. And Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi, and A. rumsfeldi, three newly discovered slime mold beetles, were named after the president and his administration heavies "for doing a very difficult job in a very difficult time," says Kelly Miller, one of the American entomologists who discovered the two-millimeter-long insects.

From Outside Magazine, Mar 2006
Lead Photo: Illustration by John Cuneo