• Naming plant and animal species after well-known people can give endangered species wider attention.
  • Classification of organisms is vital to create a better understanding of the natural world and how it’s all interconnected.
  • Taxonomy is particularly important to gauge and prevent further biodiversity loss, with 23% of species predicted to die out by 2100.

People have long named their pets after celebrities or well-known figures, but scientists do it too - and for good reason.

Naming newly-identified species – particularly endangered ones – after a celebrity can give an otherwise unremarkable creature widespread attention, raising awareness of their plight.

Australian entomologist Dr Bryan Lessard named a horsefly subgenus in tribute to the singer Beyoncé, after he discovered the specimen with a golden abdomen and honey-coloured wings in the Australian National Insect Collection.

Saying he knew that this was likely to be one opportunity he’d have to name a species after the Single Ladies singer, Lessard added that he hoped that the moniker Scaptia beyonceae would make the horsefly “an ambassador for bootylicious biodiversity”.

a picture of lady gaga next to the fern
One fern resembles one of Lady Gaga's famously extravagant outfits.
Image: Wired

‘Gender fluid’ ferns named after Lady Gaga

In 2012, fellow popstar Lady Gaga had an entire genus of 19 ferns named after her. The new genus Gaga has somewhat fluid definitions of gender at one part of its life and also resembles one of her famously extravagant outfits.

"We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defence of equality and individual expression," said Kathleen Pryer, a Duke University biology professor and director of the Duke Herbarium.

The costume Lady Gaga wore during her performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards also looked like the bisexual reproductive stage of the ferns, called a gametophyte, according to Pryer. It was even the right shade of green.

Researchers later discovered the ferns – found in Central and South America, Mexico, Arizona and Texas – have a distinct DNA sequence that spells out GAGA, which differentiates them from all other groups of the plant.

Two of the species in the genus were newly-discovered and named accordingly. Gaga germanotta honours the artist’s full name Stefani Germanotta, while Gaga monstraparva refers to her fans, who she calls “little monsters”.

Other musicians who’ve inspired taxonomic titles include Shakira, whose hip movements were paid tribute to with the naming of the Aleiodes shakirae wasp, and David Bowie who had an extinct species of wasp found in amber called Archaeoteleia astropulvis – a Latinized version of ‘Star Dust’ – named after him.

Actor-inspired wildlife monikers

Hollywood has also inspired a series of taxonomic names. Fight Club star Brad Pitt had a parasitic wasp from South Africa named after him – the Conobregma bradpitti – because he was one of the researcher’s favourite actors.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps were the inspiration of the naming of the Agra schwarzeneggeri beetle, due to the middle femora of the males being reminiscent of the actor’s physique.

Meanwhile The Queen star Dame Helen Mirren has a carnivorous jungle plant – the Nepenthes ‘Helen’ – named after her, which she unveiled at the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, world-renowned natural historian and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has had everything from a fossilised shrimp to a semi-slug and a pygmy locust named after him.

Naming species makes us care about them

When Jane Goodall was a young primatologist working in Africa in the 1960s, she gave nicknames to the chimpanzees she was studying.

"I was absolutely castigated by the scientific community - I should have given them numbers," she told a session at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2020.

By giving the animals names such as David Greybeard or Frodo, Goodall found she got people to care about them. And she has even suggested we take the same approach to conserving trees.

"I changed the way that animal behavioural science was conducted, by giving chimpanzees names," Goodall said at the launch of the Forum’s 1t.org trillion trees initiative in Davos.

Taxonomic titles key to biodiversity

Taxonomy – the classification of everything in the natural world – is a vital tool for understanding how species are interconnected evolutionarily and the role any individual organism – be it animal, plant or single-celled life form – plays in the wider ecosystem.

But as amusing as some of these names may first appear, there are rules to follow.

Any taxonomic title must follow standards set out under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and it is widely frowned on to name anything after yourself.

Ecosystems under threat more than ever before

A better understanding of how the natural world works is more important than ever, as global biodiversity is currently under threat like never before.

There are thought to be 8.7 million species of life on Earth, of which only 1.2 million species have been identified so far. One study estimates that 23% of natural habitats worldwide could be lost by 2100.

Healthy ecosystems are key to purifying the air we breathe, cleaning the water we drink and providing food and shelter.

Biodiversity is a key measure of this, and a wide variety of species in an environment is better able to contend with threats than a limited number of them in a large environment.

Indeed, the increasing frequency of major outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to climate change and biodiversity loss.

So the more we know about nature - and the more we can identify and name species - the better.