Part of my job is discovering and describing new species. Taxonomy is the term used for recognizing, naming, describing, and classifying species. The beetles that I’m currently researching are extremely under-studied so there are many, many, many undescribed species. What’s most interesting to me is that I don’t need to go on an expedition to some remote place in order to find them. They have already been collected and are sitting in natural history museums around the world, just waiting to be discovered.
Naming new species is incredibly exciting (at least to me), but is not always simple. There are many rules to follow. In fact, there is an entire organization and a specific code – the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The ICZN is, of course, for all the animals while a separate code exists for the plants. Why do you need a code? Well, there are numerous things to consider, such as:
- Is the name for this species unique? If fifty species were all named Jonus smithius, it would be incredibly confusing for scientists.
- How does a name become official? If a high school student finds a new species of beetle in their backyard and prints it in the school paper, it that an official new species?
- What specimen will you use to represent that species? There should be a specimen linked to the name that you’re making. Will it be female? Male? What if they look very different?
- Where will that specimen stay? In a natural history museum? Your house? The Marriott?
Even with the code and the many rules that need to be followed, there is still a degree of flexibility. I’ll be highlighting some of the more creative names that taxonomists have produced, especially for beetles.
First on the list, Agathidium vaderi Miller & Wheeler, a beetle in the family Leiodidae commonly known as the “round fungus-beetles”. Members of the genus Agathidium principally feed on slime molds, which is amazingly neat in and of itself. A. vaderi is named after, as you may have guessed, Darth Vader from Star Wars. The authors state that the species is so named due to its “broad, shiny, helmetlike head”. The Darth Vader beetle is from North Carolina and is approximately 3mm. Small, but mighty. They do not routinely have appendages missing. If only they had itsy, bitsy light sabers…
Miller KB, Wheeler QD. (2005) Slime-mold beetles of the genus Agathidium Panzer in North and Central America, Part II. Coleoptera: Leiodidae. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 291: 1-167.