President Bush as a beetle?
With millions of species to name, scientists turn to politicians, rock stars
Last month, the president, vice president, and defense secretary entered the natural history books as a coterie of slime-mold beetles. Two former Cornell University entomologists who admire the politicians named three newly discovered species A. bushi, A. cheneyi, and A. rumsfeldi.
The recognition, which has caused a stir among liberals, sheds light on the strange -- and sometimes funny -- science of naming new flora and fauna in a world choked with diversity. Among insects alone, only about 10 percent of species have been named, leaving an estimated 9 million up for grabs.
Quentin Wheeler and his then-student Kelly Miller plumbed the White House, history, and their imaginations when choosing names for 65 species of slime-mold beetles, tiny six-legged bugs that slurp up spores from an amoeba-like mold and live in decaying vegetation.
Their list, published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History March 24, also includes Pocahontas, Cortes, Darth Vader, and more traditional Latin words describing a species as ''hairy," ''ugly," or ''having prominent teeth."
''My first choice would always be a descriptive name, but if you're confronted with a large number of species [that look alike], you resort to other sorts of names," said Wheeler, who recently left Cornell to preside over a collection of 28 million insect specimens at the Natural History Museum in London.
It isn't uncommon for taxonomists who discover tens or hundreds of previously unknown species to run out of names -- and pick random combinations of letters, favorite ''Lord of the Rings" characters, or the names of people they respect.
But there are some rules. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature regulates, and sometimes asks that names be reconsidered. Species names must end in ''i" if the species is named after a man, and ''ae" if it is named after a woman. Guidelines recommend that scientists choose names that are ''appropriate, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offense."
Wheeler and Miller's Republican slime-mold beetles follow in a grand tradition of honorifics. Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Abraham Lincoln are mirrored in nature by eponymous celebrity sea slugs, Bolivian orchids, and wasps, respectively. A list of fossilized trilobites reads like a who's who of rock 'n' roll, featuring members of the Sex Pistols, the Kinks, AC/DC, and the Rolling Stones.
''If this all sounds frivolous, it comes with a scientific message. Life is stunningly diverse and taxonomists can afford to have a bit of fun with the names," Australian scientist and trilobite-namer Greg Edgecombe, wrote in an e-mail. ''There are only so many times one can use the species name 'australis' or 'grandis' before the thought, 'maybe I should name this one after Joey Ramone' goes through your head."
Even ordinary people can be immortalized in nature. The World Conservation Society in the United States recently auctioned off a South American monkey species name for $650,000 to the Golden Palace online casino. It's new name: Callicebus aureipalatii -- Latin for ''golden palace." The German organization BIOPAT auctions off frog, beetle, plant, and bird names to fund conservation efforts, at a starting price of $3,300. And Wheeler also paid tribute to his wife, Marie, and ex-wife, Kimberly, ''who put up with all that comes with being married to a taxonomist for a quarter century," by naming species after them.
All names are ultimately reviewed by the international nomenclature commission, which ensures that the same species aren't being ''discovered" twice, and enforces the few rules. The commission has put up with a lot over the years: even a species of beetle named for Adolf Hitler.
But Wheeler's choice to name relatively innocuous and unknown beetles after three current political figures have generated a torrent of hate mail from the liberal left, and touched a nerve at the commission. Executive secretary Andrew Polaszek said the names cannot be repealed, because current guidelines only recommend against choosing offensive names, but says he thinks it's an example of why the rules should be toughened.
''There are a lot of people in the world to whom these people are truly offensive. In that sense, I would regard this as not a good idea," he said.
''What is unusual is to name species after living political figures, and that is almost never done, it's considered in very poor taste," said Edward O. Wilson, the famed Harvard biologist, who recently published a report in which he named an entire genus of ants -- 347 species -- and said he had no trouble coming up with Greek and Latinized form of descriptive words for each one.
Wheeler said he never expected that the slime-mold beetle would attract such international attention. ''It was not meant to be political," he said, noting that he assigned the names almost at random to the similar-looking beetles. A. bushi can be found in the Midwest, while A. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi live in the mountainous regions of Mexico.
''I wanted to recognize what I see as admirable qualities in humans and citizens," honoring people who stand up for their principles in difficult times, he said.
And while Wheeler marvels at these tiny beetles and their symbiotic relationship with slime-molds, there's always the possibility that a distinguished celebrity might take offense to being compared to an insect.
The White House said it had no response to its beetle namesakes.
But a spokesman for Rumsfeld said the defense secretary was pleased. ''The competition was probably intense, and he is honored to be among those selected."
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.