It’s funny to name species after celebrities, but there’s a serious side too



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Attenborougharion rubicundus is one of more than a dozen species named after the legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
Simon Grove/Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, CC BY

Kevin Thiele, University of Western Australia

Microleo attenboroughi. Scaptia beyonceae. Crikey steveirwini. These are the scientific names of just a few of the nearly 25,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms discovered and named in Australia in the past decade.

In each case, the honoured celebrity’s name is Latinised and added to the name of an existing or new genus – a set of closely related species that share common characteristics. In the above examples, Microleo (meaning “tiny lion”) is a genus of extinct carnivorous possums, while Scaptia is a genus of colourful horseflies. And in the case of Crikey steveirwini, a rare snail from northern Queensland, even the genus name honours Irwin, in the form of his favoured colloquialism.




Read more:
It’s not the science of tax, and five other things you should know about taxonomy


Scientists have been naming species in honour of celebrities since the 18th century. The father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, coined names to curry the favour (and open the purses) of rich patrons.

These days, we usually do it to curry short-lived attention from the public by injecting a degree of attention-grabbing frivolity. Scaptia beyonceae is one example – so named because the fly in question has a shiny, golden bum.

I don’t think you’re ready for this genus: Scaptia beyonceae.
Erick/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

But to taxonomists and biosystematists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document the world’s living and fossil species – the naming of organisms is a serious business.

Not just celeb jokes

Consider this. The current best estimate is that Australia, including its shores and surrounding oceans, is home to more than 600,000 species of plants, animals, fungi, microbes and other organisms.

This tally ranks Australia as one of the most biologically rich and diverse nations on Earth. We are “megadiverse” – one of a select handful of nations that together comprise less than 10% of Earth’s surface but are home to more than 70% of its living species.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots.
AAS/Royal Society Te Apārangi

Now consider this: only 30% of Australia’s living species have been discovered, named and documented so far. That leaves more than 400,000 Australian species that we know absolutely nothing about.

Estimated number of described (centre shaded areas) and undescribed (outer unshaded areas) species in Australia and New Zealand.
AAS/Royal Society Te Apārangi

Does this matter? Do organisms need names? The answer is yes, if we want to conserve our biodiversity, keep our native species, agriculture and aquaculture safe from invasive pests and diseases, discover new life-saving drugs, answer some of the greatest scientific questions ever asked, or make full use of the opportunities that nature provides to improve our health, agriculture, industries and economy.

Taxonomists construct the framework that allows us to understand and document species and manage our knowledge of them. Such a framework is essential if we are to sustainably manage life on Earth. At a time when Earth is facing an extinction crisis, brought about by land clearing, pollution and global warming, it is more vital than ever.

Without the understanding provided by taxonomists, we’re like the largest, most complex global corporation imaginable, trying to do business with no stock inventory and no real idea of what most of its products look like or do.

Time for an overhaul

The magnitude of the task seems daunting. At our current rate of progress, it will take more than 400 years even to approach a complete biodiversity inventory of Australia.

Fortunately, we don’t have to continue at our current rate. Taxonomy is in the midst of a technological and scientific revolution.

New methods allow us to cheaply sequence the entire DNA code of any organism. We can extract and identify the minute DNA fragments left in a river when a fish swims past. We are globally connected like never before. And we have supercomputers and smart algorithms that can catalogue and make sense of all the world’s species.

In this context, the release today by the Australian Academy of Science and New Zealand’s Royal Society Te Apārangi of a strategic plan to guide Australian and New Zealand taxonomy and biosystematics for the next decade is a significant step. The new plan outlines how we will rise to the grand challenge of documenting, understanding and conserving all of Australia’s biodiversity.

Sir David Attenborough endorses the new taxonomy plan.

Grand challenge

The plan lays out a blueprint for the strategic investments needed to meet this grand challenge. It envisages a decade of reinvestment, leading to a program of “hyper-taxonomy” – the discovery within a generation of all of Australia’s remaining undiscovered species.

It sets out the ways in which we can use our knowledge of species to benefit society and protect nature, and also the risks involved if we don’t. A small example: there are an estimated 200 unnamed and largely unknown species of native Australian mosquitoes. Mosquitoes cause more human deaths than any other animal on Earth. New mosquito-borne viruses and other parasites are being discovered all the time. It doesn’t take much to put these facts together to see the risks.




Read more:
We can name all of Earth’s species, but we may have to hurry


With such a weighty challenge and such important goals, it’s hardly surprising that taxonomists sometimes indulge in a little quirky name-calling. Names like Draculoides bramstokeri, a cave-dwelling relative of spiders; or the tiny, harmless pseudo-scorpion Tyrannochthonius rex; or Hebejeebie, the name that botanists simply couldn’t resist when a new genus was separated from Hebe.

Materpiscis attenboroughi lived hundreds of millions of years before its celebrity namesake.
MagentaGreen/Sularko/Museum Victoria/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

One of the greatest celebrities of all, the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, has more than a dozen species named in his honour. No fewer than five of them are Australian. These include the brightly coloured slug-snail Attenborougharion rubicundus, and the fossil of the first known organism to give birth to live young, Materpiscis attenboroughi.

The ConversationAs Sir David puts the case in endorsing the plan, discovering and naming species is vitally important, not only for the future of taxonomy and biosystematics, but for the future of our living planet.

Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why so many Australian species are yet to be named


David Yeates, CSIRO

Turns out that in Australia, you are probably closer than you think to hundreds or thousands of species that don’t have names. They are scientifically and culturally anonymous Australians.

If you live in a capital city, these unnamed Aussies are in your state or territory museum, and if you live in a regional area, they are living in your local nature reserve.

Why is this the case? Australia is acknowledged as a “megadiverse” nation, with a particularly large slice of the world’s biodiversity. Our natural environments span from tropical forest to alpine meadow, and from some of the driest deserts to mangrove swamps.

Because almost all of our species only live on this continent, it is up to us to study them. Here is the catch – because this is a large continent with relatively few people, there are also few dollars to fund such discovery research.

Of the estimated 500,000 Australian species, half are insects and only perhaps 20% to 30% of these have been named, so there are at least 100,000 unnamed Australian insect species. These unknown elements of biodiversity represent an almost completely untapped opportunity and resource.

What’s in a name?

So what’s in a name and why does it matter, all this naming in the name of science? Is it just a pointless, egotistical quest for scientific immortality?

No, turns out that it’s important, and often quite challenging. When they are minted, species names are carefully crafted so that they do not duplicate other species’ names.

The Chrysolophus spectabilis weevil.
CSIRO/Rolf Oberprieler, Author provided

For example, one of the first Australian insects to be given a scientific name was the metallic green weevil discovered during James Cook’s first voyage, Chrysolopus spectabilis, also known as the Botany Bay Weevil.

The Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius gave it that name in 1775, and no other animal can now have the name. Type that name into Google, and you will retrieve all sorts of information on it, including beautiful pictures, maps of its distribution, plants that it feeds on.

Worldwide, we have named more that 1.5 million species over the past 250 years, so finding a unique name also can take some careful sleuthing in online databases, such as the Australian Faunal Directory.

This is because species names are used as globally unique passwords to information. You can use the species name to search for information on the species in books, and online resources such as the Atlas of Living Australia.

If a species doesn’t have a name, any information on it is impossible to find. Conversely, if we gave every species the name Bob, information on any particular Bob would be impossible to separate out.

The research to figure out if a species is new can be very challenging. Some species physically look almost exactly the same as other species (they are called sibling species). And this can have real-world consequences.

I estimate that distinguishing a Queensland fruit fly (scientific name Bactrocera tryoni), a major fruit pest, from one of its many closely related but harmless sibling fruit fly species, would be impossible for all but a few well-trained entomologists.

The biosecurity factor

But being able to accurately distinguish these species matters a lot in the real world when it comes to biosecurity and developing international trade.

It is almost always the case that species that are siblings in an anatomical sense are also very difficult to distinguish genetically; they very often have the same DNA barcode sequences, or overlapping sets of DNA sequences.

CSIRO postdoctoral fellow Dr Bryan Lessard is part of the team involved with naming new species.
CSIRO/Alan Landford, Author provided

Government quarantine services often contract our scientists to develop protocols for distinguishing quarantine threats from harmless local species.

If you live in Canberra, you are very close to swarms of unnamed species in CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. We manage a collection of more than 12 million specimens, almost all of them from Australia.

Not surprisingly, it is the largest collection of Australian insects in the world.

We have the vast majority of named Australian insect species in the collection, plus tens of thousands of unnamed species. The collection is like a vast hard drive of Australia’s biodiversity.

Our researchers continue the task of describing and understanding Australia’s insect species using more and more sophisticated techniques.

Unnamed species belong to a wide range of groups such as mosquitoes that bite humans, and innocent native beetles that look just like major timber and grain pests native to our overseas trading partners.

Often species wait in the collection for decades before study. A PhD student and I are in the process of naming an entire new lineage of flower pollinating insects in the collection, from specimens found in a remote corner of Western Australia 35 years ago.

One of a new lineage of flies about to be formally named.
Xuankun Li (CSIRO and ANU), Author provided

We decide if a species is new by comparing it closely with all its named relatives, siblings and others. Hence the need to have a comprehensive set (a collection) in one physical or virtual place.

Because there are so many insect species, there are too many to compile a book or website with every species photographed and listed. Even if we did, it would have too many pages of very similar-looking species to flick through to make the comparisons.

So we use various identification tools to help us work out if a newly collected species already has a name, or needs one.

I name that critter…

Traditionally, we have used anatomical keys (What bug is that?), that guide the user to an identification by making a series of carefully selected physical observations and comparisons.

But more recently, we’ve been using vast databases of molecular sequence barcodes, analogous to the white pages for biodiversity, to help us decide whether the species is new or not.

The number of genetic mutations shared among populations are increasingly used as evidence of species status.

We are also experimenting with image recognition software to help us. A little bit like a criminal investigation, the best result is when all lines of evidence point in the same direction, telling us that the species is new.

Federal government and private industry joint initiatives, such as Bush Blitz, are providing valuable information on the species in our national parks and other reserves, but we have a long way to go.

While we continue to grapple with the task of keeping trade routes open and managing and conserving our biodiversity for future generations and opportunities, remember the salient point here: most of Australia’s species are unnamed, and we know next to nothing about them.

If we have information on where these unnamed species occur, what features they have, or what they do in the environment, we cannot easily retrieve and analyse it. Hence we cannot readily distinguish native species from important overseas pests.

We also don’t have the information needed to make a choice about where to invest our conservation resources optimally. Efforts to build trade and conserve our biodiversity are compromised until we know more about Australian species. This compromise is a risk we don’t need to take.

The census is coming

We are on the eve of the 2016 Australian census. What a great nation-building goal it would be to initiate a species census.

It would give us the confidence that we had a good handle on our biodiversity – what it is, where it occurs, how well we are conserving it and what properties make it beneficial or harmful to us.

In terms of Australia’s federal budget (somewhere around A$450-billion dollars), the annual resources required for such a species census would be a drop in the ocean.

Are we responsible stewards of this ancient and fascinating land, or are we renting a share house? And can we really say that we know what it is to be Australian when we don’t know the names and addresses of most Australians?

The Conversation

David Yeates, Director of the Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Panama: New Snake Species Discovered


The link below is to an article reporting the discovery of a new snake species in Panama, which has been named as a protest to a new mine in that country.

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0918-hance-no-mining-snake.html