Species names with a mission: from ‘anti-mining snake’ to ‘Snowden lobster’

Image: Christian Lukhaup et al. via Wikimedia

Entomologist Halil Ibrahimi and his team recently announced the discovery of a new sedge moth species in Kosovo’s Šar Mountains. This is not news in itself, because thousands of new species are discovered every year. But Ibrahimi sent an alarming message to the world with the name of the moth, which he Potamophylax humoinsapiens baptized.

Ibrahimi combined the Latin words humor, buried, and sapiens, unwise. With this he wants to denounce the “unwise and negligent treatment of the habitats of the new species, which have been greatly affected in recent years by hydroelectric power plants and other activities.” At the same time, the species name is a pun on our own species: Homo sapiens. Ibrahimi believes that people no longer deserve to be called wise if we take such poor care of nature.

Two years ago, Ibrahimi pulled a similar stunt. In the middle of the corona crisis, he has a related sedge moth species Potamophylax coronavirus, a metaphorical reference to the ‘pandemic’ that humans are wreaking in Kosovo’s rivers. Ibrahimi is therefore a textbook example of a biologist who seeks inspiration in his activism when naming new species.

The rules of art

Rules for naming new species are laid down in voluminous codices, such as the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). These serve primarily to prevent confusion, but the meaning of the new animal names is little supervised. It is not done to name species after yourself and the new name should not cause offense. What the latter means exactly, is largely up to you.

Scientists like Ibrahimi are therefore free to use the name of a new species to express support for their favorite charity or an important social issue. As expected, biologists often stand up for the climate and nature.

“No to mine!”

The snake Sibon noalamina is another example of an animal with an environmentalist species name. The discoverers of that named her after the battle cry of the Ngöbe: ‘No a la mina!’ or ‘No to mine!’. That original population in Panama resisted development plans in their region that also threaten the habitat of the snake. The authors wanted to use this name to support the fight against the mines and to encourage the Panamanian government to protect the jungles in consultation with the activists.

In addition, environmental activists are sometimes honored by naming an animal species after them. The young climate activist Greta Thunberg has at least five species and a genus to her credit. Documentary filmmaker David Attenborough takes the cake. More than fifty species and genera have been named after him, such as a , one from the Caribbean, and an extinct

Former President Donald Trump is not really known for his climate policy, but there are still some varieties with his name. An entomologist tried to draw attention to fragile ecosystems in the United States in 2017 by naming one after the then newly elected president (Neopalpa donaldtrumpiAt the same time, the researcher noted that the scales on the moth’s head resemble the former president’s distinctive haircut.

Lobster rings the bells

Biologists are not only worried about the environment, but also use generic names for social issues. For example, one from Indonesia is named after whistleblower and privacy activist Edward Snowden (Cherax Snowden). Taiwanese researchers, on the other hand, supported the fight for same-sex marriage in Taiwan and worldwide with the naming of a , the Aegista diversifamilia.

The name of a , the Tupacsala niunamenos, refers to three different things. The genus name, Tupacsala, refers to Túpac Amaru II, an indigenous freedom fighter who was brutally executed by the Spanish colonial powers in the late eighteenth century. The genus name also indicts the imprisonment of Argentine Milagro Sala, one of the leaders of the Tupac Amaru Neighborhood Association. The generic name is the same as the name of the feminist mass movement Ni una menos (“Not one less”) in Argentina and other Latin American countries. Since 2015, he has denounced violence against women with protests and women’s strikes.

News media pick up on newly discovered animals and plants with activist names faster than other new species. It is doubtful whether the activist names, in addition to the success in the media, also have an impact on government policy. In any case, they give an impression that keeps entomologists and other natural scientists awake.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Species names mission antimining snake Snowden lobster

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