Late last week CSIRO announced that a new species of horse fly had been named after pop diva Beyoncé’s bottom. The story generated a real buzz across traditional and social media both in Australia and overseas.
Of course, scientific names don’t usually generate this kind of attention, and understandably so – when was the last time you laughed at a Latin name?
The science of describing and giving names to new species is called taxonomy. Like all science disciplines, taxonomy is subject to critical review and assessment by other taxonomists. It is also governed by strict rules devised by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).
These rules exist to ensure that new scientific names aren’t accidentally duplicated, and that only one name is applied to the same species. This is important because every species must have a unique name so that scientists can be confident when they are referring to a particular species that they are all on the same page.
So how did Bryan Lessard – the researcher at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC) who described the fly, manage to get away with naming it after Beyoncé?
The first person to formally “describe” a species in a scientific publication is allowed to name it, although this isn’t always the person that found the specimen.
Many new species are described from museum specimens that have been safely housed in drawers or boxes for years, or even decades.
This was the case with Beyoncé’s new fly – Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae – which was collected from the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland in 1981, but then sat in the ANIC for 30 years, waiting for Bryan to find it.
A taxonomist’s job is to describe species in detail, including what it looks like, where it was found and the significance of the name being given to the new species. This name can be just about anything and can refer to a physical feature, such as colour or shape, or be named to honour a particular person.
In Bryan’s case, he named the species after Beyoncé because he thought the distinctive golden hairs on the fly’s lower abdomen made the fly “bootylicious” – a term made famous by a song of the same name in 2001 by Beyoncé’s former group Destiny’s Child.
Humour, whether intentional or not, can often come into play when naming new species. Like any job, describing new species can be tiresome and repetitive at times, so when US taxonomist Brett Ratcliffe was faced with naming yet another species of beetle in the genus Cyclocephala, he expressed his weariness by naming it Cyclocephala nodanotherwon (“not another one”). US entomologist Neal Evenhuis found naming a species a less onerous task, naming his furry fly Pieza kake (“piece of cake”).
One of the ICZN rules explicitly states that no taxonomist should propose a name that may give offense. It seems that sometimes this accidentally gets broken, with some legitimate species names just sounding rude.
Accidental references to buttocks and sexual innuendo are also quite prevalent. When comedienne June Whitfield was honoured with a rose cultivar, Rosa “Whitfield”, she commented: “There is a rose named after me. The catalogue describes it as ‘superb for bedding, best up against a wall.’"
Sometimes having a species named after you isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In 1930, a young American herpetologist, Worth Weller, discovered a new species of salamander. A week after graduating from high school, aged 18, he went on another collecting trip to acquire more specimens but never returned.
His body was found four days later at the base of a cliff, together with a bag of specimens of the new species. The salamander was posthumously named after him: Plethodon welleri.
These are just a few examples of entertaining taxonomic anecdotes and there are countless others. And with the reception that Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae received, perhaps Beyoncé won’t be the last pop star to be immortalised in the insect world.