From Beyonce to Lady Gaga- The Importance of Insect Taxonomy

Scaptia Beyonceae, named after the singer Beyonce © Erick via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Scaptia Beyonceae, named after the singer Beyonce by Bryan Lessard © Erick via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Taxonomy is the system used to categorise species by defining groups of organisms on the basis of shared characteristics and giving names to those groups. To date, around 1 million insect species have been described, however it is thought that this only represents about 10% of the insect species living on Earth, meaning new species are being discovered on a daily basis.

Taxonomy has been described as one of the oldest professions in the world, since early humans would have named the things around them so that they knew, for example, what plants were safe to eat or what fungi were poisonous. In the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus created the binomial system of nomenclature that is still used today. The start date for modern entomological taxonomy is based on Linnaeus’ tenth edition of his work Systema Naturae (1758). Linnaeus’ hierarchical system means that species can be identified from Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family and Genus right down to Species.

Often an insect name refers to an attribute that characterises them, for example Oryctes rhinoceros, the rhinoceros beetle, is a huge Scarab beetle with a horn like a rhinoceros, and Titanus giganteus is one of the largest beetles in the world. Many well respected entomologists have species named after them as an honor,  for example Max Barclay, the Curator and Collections Manager of Coleoptera and True Bugs at the Natural History Museum in London has numerous beetle species named after him, including Cartodere barclayi

Some entomologists take a more humorous and light hearted view of species naming, possibly in an attempt to attract more young entomologists into taxonomy. Last year Australian entomologist Bryan Lessard named a species of Australian horsefly with a bright golden bottom Scaptia beyonceaecalling it the ‘all time diva of flies’. Similarly last year a parasitoid wasp was named  Aleiodes gaga after singer and performer Lady Gaga.

The aptly named Titanus giganteus, one of the biggest beetles in the world. This one measures 11.7cm from tip of the mandible to tip of the elytra © Natural History Museum Department of Entomology via Flickr (License CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)
The aptly named Titanus giganteus, one of the biggest beetles in the world. This one measures 11.7cm from tip of the mandible to tip of the elytra © Natural History Museum Department of Entomology via Flickr (License CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

In 1904 British entomologist George Willis Kirkaldy gave a series of bugs the suffix Chisme, meaning news. This name also happens to sound like ‘kiss me’ when read out loud, and he went on to name the genus Polychisme (Polly kiss me), Dolichisme (Dolly kiss me) and many more. Kirkaldy was criticised for frivolity by the London Zoological Society in 1912 for seemingly boasted about sexual conquests through the medium of taxonomic nomenclature! Senior entomologist at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii Neil Evenhuis has carried on Kirkaldy’s theme by naming a fossil fly in amber Carmenelectra shechisme after his favourite actress Carmen Electra. He is also behind several other comical names, including Pieza kake (piece of cake) and Pieza deresistans (Pièce de resistance). Similarly there are species of beetles in the genus Agra with the species names Agra vate (Erwin, 1986) and Agra vation (Erwin, 1983) and a moth called Leonardo davincii (Bleszynski, 1965)

Entomologist Quentin Wheeler named a trio of beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi after the former President, Vice-president and Defence Secretary of the USA. When asked whether this was intended as an insult to George Bush, Wheeler responded saying he hoped not, since he had also named species after his wife and ex-wife!

However, as Max Barclay points out: ‘It is grossly unwise to name things after politicians, because you don’t know what they’re going to do and the name is going to last forever, and your name is going to be associated with that name forever’. Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of this is a small orange cave dwelling beetle called Anophthalmus hitleri in honor of the Nazi leader in 1936 by Oscar Scheibel.

Taxonomy is as important now as ever, particularly in view of the number of undiscovered insect species that have major ecological importance within ecosystems and may become extinct before we even identify them.

References:

‘The Etymology of Entomology’, BBC Radio 4, March 2013

‘From Beyonce to Electra: What Inspires Insect Names?’, BBC News, 10th March 2013

‘New to Nature No. 84: Aleoides gaga’, by Quentin Wheeler, The Guardian, September 2012

‘New Beyonce Fly Named For Golden Bottom’, by Jorge Salazar, EarthSky, Jan 2012

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