Ba Humbugi! Let's Nameus That Speciesus



Published: February 20, 2005 (from New York Times on the Web)


WHAT'S in a name?

  If you're a tiny creature native to the Indian subcontinent, exactly

36 vowels and consonants. That's what it takes to spell Prolasioptera

aeschynanthusperottetii, a primitive fly discovered by an Indian

entomologist, M. S. Mani, in 1943.


  The hefty name may be just about the only thing unusual about P.

aeschynanthusperottetii, an otherwise forgettable insect. But it is

hardly the most unusual name in the animal kingdom. (It isn't even the

longest: another fly weighs in at 42 letters.)


  Scientists may be serious people, engaged in the pursuit of objective

truth. But when it comes to naming species, they often let their hair



  So the insect world has Heerz tooya, Apopyllus now and Pieza pi and

Pieza rhea, among thousands of puns and other oddities. (In science,

all creatures are binomial, with a capitalized genus name followed by a

lower-case species name.) The oceans are home to Ittibittium, a genus

of mollusks that are smaller than those named Bittium. There are

species named for body parts and bodily functions, for celebrities,

painters and writers, for cartoon characters and favorite sports. For

those who find it to be all too much, there is even Ba humbugi, a snail

from Fiji.


  Since the scientist who discovers a species gets the right to name it,

the lay public doesn't often have a chance to join in the fun. But the

Wildlife Conservation Society announced this month that it would

auction off the naming rights to a new species of monkey found in

Bolivia. The money raised by the auction (beginning Thursday at will go to wildlife protection in that country.


  So, to the victor goes the spelling. And just about any spelling goes.


  "We have a code of ethics - no names that could be offensive on any

grounds," said Neal L. Evenhuis, an entomologist at the Bishop Museum

in Honolulu and current president of the International Commission on

Zoological Nomenclature, which oversees the naming process (similar

groups exist for plants and bacteria). Beyond that, and requirements

for Latinizing certain words, the person naming a species has wide



  Dr. Evenhuis has taken some of that leeway himself with several of the

more than 500 species of insects he has named. The flies Pieza pi and

Pieza rhea are his creations, as are Pieza deresistans (relying on an

alternative pronunciation of the genus name) and his personal favorite,

Phthiria relativitae.


  "It's not that I'm desperate," Dr. Evenhuis said. "I just have this

streak of levity. Not all names have to necessarily be kind of boring."


  Others, however, are desperate. The problem is there are too many

species. Well over one million animal species have been described, and

millions more are awaiting discovery. And there are still many known

species that no one has had the time to name yet. "There are not enough

taxonomists to go around," Dr. Evenhuis said.


  While some scientists try to follow the traditional practice of

incorporating an organism's characteristics into its name, others give

up and try something else. So there are creatures from Aa to Zyzzyx.

There are the palindromic names Ababa and Xela alex. There's a species

for every Tom, Dick and Harry: Ptomaspis, Dikenaspis and Ariaspis.

There are several moth species that easily could have come from that

novelty song "The Name Game": bobana, momana, fofana. These and other

unusual names have been compiled by Mark Isaak and are available at his

web site updated to