December 11, 2018

Want a Frog Species Named After You? Just Be the Highest Bidder


There is a wasp named after William Shakespeare, a horse fly named after Beyoncé and a lichen named after Dolly Parton.

A spider bears Bernie Sanders’s surname; Michael Jackson has a crustacean to call his own; and Donald J. Trump’s name graces a moth found in Southern California. (The researchers likened the yellow scales on the moth’s head to the president’s hair. Now it’s known as Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.)

In trying to make sense of the 1.3 million species that humans have identified, scientists have a long tradition of bestowing new discoveries with a scientific name. Think Tyrannosaurus rex or Felis silvestris catus.

The privilege of naming a new species typically lies with the person who discovered it. Only in the past few decades have researchers started to delegate that task to someone else: the highest bidder.

On Saturday, Rainforest Trust, a conservation nonprofit based in the United States, will complete its auction of the rights to name 12 newly discovered plant and animal species from South America. The winners can name them after their mother, their pet dog, a car company — pretty much anything. The group says the money will be used to buy land where that species lives in an effort to save it from extinction.

But some scientists chafe at the idea of selling the rights to name a species, and see it as the latest example of Westerners co-opting developing countries’ biodiversity. Others worry it will turn species exploration into a cutthroat commercial endeavor.

“If we leap into something and don’t anticipate what can go wrong, then we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable,” said Douglas Yanega, an entomologist and taxonomist based in California. “There are so many possible ways that it can go badly.”

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This species of amphibian was discovered in Panama. The starting bid for the rights to name it is $10,000.CreditRainforest Trust

The conservation group, which started accepting bids in November, is using a conventional auction house that sells art and antiques to sell the rights to name the 12 species from Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. The minimum bid for each species is $10,000.

Up for auction are four frogs of varying shades, four species of orchid and a reddish ant with a trap-jaw. There’s also a gray forest mouse with impressively long whiskers, a wormlike amphibian and a burnt-orange salamander with tiny legs.

Paul Salaman, the chief executive of Rainforest Trust, is familiar with the objections to species-naming auctions. In the early 1990s, these auctions were a new concept when Dr. Salaman, a field biologist, sold the rights to name a species of songbird he discovered in Colombia. There were some conservationists who were outraged at the idea of giving companies the chance to impose their brand on the natural world, he said.

Dr. Salaman’s counterargument is that the threats to these species posed by climate change and industrial blights, like logging, are far more pressing than the threat of artificial names.

“The name itself doesn’t really matter,” Dr. Salaman said. “The key is the funding to save the species.”

The practice of playfully naming new species after celebrities, friends and enemies is as old as the practice of binomial nomenclature, the scientific naming of organisms.

Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist and the first scientist to consistently apply binomial nomenclature, used species naming to both honor and mock his contemporaries. According to the book “Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist,” Linnaeus named a yellow coneflower after his mentor. He also named an unpleasant-smelling weed after Johann Siegesbeck, a German botanist and one of Linnaeus’s enemies.

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This Ecuadorean ant species, whose name is up for auction, was discovered by a researcher after one flew into his bedroom.CreditRainforest Trust

These scientific names are meant to last forever. In an extreme example, a Croatian entomologist named a Slovene beetle after Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, when he was chancellor of Germany. Because convention does not allow for name changes, Anophthalmus hitleri has endured.

But Dr. Yanega, who is also a commissioner with the nomenclature commission, fears that if species-naming auctions go mainstream, they have the potential to do more harm than good to scientists’ collective project of describing the world’s species. For one, Dr. Yanega said, turning species naming into a profitable endeavor could encourage fraudulent taxonomists to churn out discoveries to make themselves money unless scientists can develop safeguards.

And in a community that relies on collaboration, making species naming a lucrative practice could make scientists secretive about their work and covetous of their own specimens, which are usually shared liberally with other researchers, Dr. Yanega said.

“It could become cutthroat,” he said. “Every man for himself.”



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