[Taxacom] About the "paying for species names" and "funny names" threads

Jose Fernandez Triana jftriana at uoguelph.ca
Thu Oct 24 13:03:45 CDT 2013

Dear all,

Two unrelated topics being discussed here during the last few days have dealt with making money from describing species ("Is the Company "YourSpecies" in Barcelona for real or a hoax" thread), and about scientific names with funny stories. I wanted to add my two cents in those discussions while commenting on a paper that came out today in Zootaxa (http://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2013/f/zt03722p568.pdf). I also added some other comments about this paper in a blog post (http://cncbraconidae.blogspot.ca/2013/10/concerning-hobbits-and-microgastrinae.html), mostly addressed to lay people who would be interested in that research.

First the easy part: the paper I mention above describes one new genus and six species of New Zealand parasitoid wasps, and all names are related to the hobbits (from Tolkien works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). According to Doug Yanega's list of curious scientific names, there were already 46 names related to Tolkien and his fictional universe (Doug, you will have now 7 more to add to your list ;-) 

Second, the not-so-easy part. While I selected those names mainly because I am a fan of The Lord of the Rings, I was/am also expecting to generate some interest or publicity that would translate into more support for taxonomic work on the fauna of New Zealand braconid wasps. If that is an idealistic, dreaming-in-colours, naive, and/or stupid expectation time will tell. Chris Thompson (fairly) complained before that describing a species after Bill Gates did not translate into funding for Diptera... And he may be totally right for any other case, although I am not planning to give up before putting a fight. Because I do believe that there are people out there that would support taxonomic research -as long as they get or see something out of it, be it a species named after them, or just the creation of "cool" names, or even promoting interesting facts as being part of those researches. 

Either we like it or not, we live in a world that moves in directions not always liked by scientists. Having a species named after a donor, or after a "famous" person, may look as a bad thing. But I think that the only bad thing -and the only thing to be worried about- is when standards of taxonomic work are lowered. If we end with poor papers, it will not matter much if the species there are named in perfect Greek referring to a body part or if they are named just after the main stars of a baseball team, or a famous millionaire. [By the way, by NO means I am implying that Chris work is poor, on the contrary: everyone who knows his work is aware of his extraordinary contributions in Diptera and beyond!].

I am pretty cynical about names in taxonomy: I worry about producing good taxonomic reviews and could not care less about the names per se. BUT, if by choosing some names would allow me to get more funds for research (and here I am NOT talking about money for my pocket, but perhaps to support DNA extraction, visits to museums, field collecting, and similar things), then I am very much in favour of naming species after donors that would support taxonomy. I apologize if this position is not shared for some/many here.

A recent paper by Norm Platnick (by coincidence, also in Zootaxa: http://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2013/f/zt03683p600.pdf) mentioned, I am assuming half serious, half joking, that when considering a career in taxonomy it helps a lot to be wealthy :) Unfortunately that is far from being the case for most of us. And support for taxonomy is meager, as everyone knows very well. So we should try to find alternatives. 

I am aware that some entomologists have tried crowd-funding ways (e.g. Kickstarter, RocketHub) to try getting some support for their taxonomic work. I do not know about their results, but am curious to know if they have succeeded or not in those endeavours -if anyone knows, please share that info!

I am also aware of the powerful impact that social media may have on research. Recently Sam Droege (USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center) shared in another list (Entomo-L) his experience of uploading bees photos to Flickr and how much feedback (and publicity) he got from people. FAR MORE than any usual scientific media we are used. That cannot be bad to justify his work (or trying to convince his bosses about funding more his research).

Another group of entomologists working on Braconidae named last year an Aleiodes species after Lady Gaga... the results? I invite you to do Google search for Aleiodes (or search in Google Images). A few months ago, the first few searches would retrieve information about Lady Gaga before the actual Aleiodes wasps! (Fortunately that has changed a bit, but still that singer appears when you are trying to do a search on the braconid genus Aleiodes). 

And then a good colleague here in the Canadian National Collection, John Huber, described a new genus of Mymaridae, wasps less than 0.2 mm named as Tinkerbella (after Peter Pan's Tinkerbell). The results? Huge media coverage and publicity for this research. Again, that cannot be bad for his work. We need more appreciation from the general public (and for the science bureaucrats and policy makers!

Now, we could say that that should not be our goal. Certainly we should not be looking for our 15 minutes of fame... or should we? Well, if doing some kind of PR helps us to get more support for our scientific work, then I do not really care. Again, my main concern is if we would start describing species without base, just to get more new names for donors. Only when we leave behind our work ethic (I am naively assuming that everyone has a good work ethic) is when we will have problems. But that is not related per se with the names chosen for new species...

Concluding this long email, I do not know if this "YourSpecies" site is legit or not. And I do not like to have this kind of "middle man" between the taxonomist and the potential donor. BUT if they (or someone else) can succeed in finding extra support for taxonomic research, then I would be OK with that. [In any case I do not plan to contact that site anytime soon, nor do I recommend anyone to do it. But I do not shy away to discuss this topics either].

Back to my first point of this message (and thanks to all of you patient enough to read up to here!), we will try to use the alluring of the wasps-with-hobbit-names to attract more support (or at least appreciation!) for taxonomic research of Braconidae being done in New Zealand. And who knows? Perhaps Peter Jackson is nicer than Bill Gates ;-)


José L. Fernández-Triana, PhD.
Research Associate, Canadian National Collection of Insects,
and Biodiversity Institute of Ontario
960 Carling Ave, Ottawa, ON, K1A 0C6
Phone: 613-759-1034. Email: jftriana at uoguelph.ca, jose.fernandez at agr.gc.ca

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