Science

Eriovixia gryffindori: Not the only critter with Harry Potter heritage

The tiny spider's shape was eerily reminiscent of Harry Potter's sorting hat, prompting the creature's name. Increasingly, scientists are looking to pop culture for naming inspiration. 

In this scene from the 2001 film 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,' Professor McGonagall (l.), played by Maggie Smith, places the sorting hat on Harry Potter, played by Daniel Radcliffe.
Peter Mountain/Warner Bros/Reuters/File | Caption

Harry Potter fans, rejoice! References to British author J.K. Rowling’s famous fantasy series about the boy wizard have once again crept into scientific language, after a team of Indian scientists named a new species of spider after the famous sorting hat.

The spider’s discoverers say that the arachnid’s shape immediately put them in mind of the sorting hat. Potterheads will recognize the spider’s scientific name, Eriovixia gryffindori, as a reference to the sorting hat’s original owner and Hogwarts co-founder, Godric Gryffindor.

"My colleagues and I are geeks and we all thought, 'Hey this curious little spider looks exactly like the sorting hat.' It was uncannily similar," said scientist Javed Ahmed, according to AFP. "So we made a pact that if this turns out to be a new species we will name it after the sorting hat.”

Experts agreed that the tiny spider – only measuring about a quarter of an inch – was definitely a new species, which led to the publication of a new study in the Indian Journal of Arachnology this month. After the announcement of the finding, Potter author J.K. Rowling reached out in congratulations, tweeting:

This little arachnid isn’t the first creature to be named after the bestselling series.

In 2012, an ant-like wasp species was named Ampulex dementor after the spooky, happiness-draining monsters featured in several Harry Potter books. The name won a popular vote, apparent because the voters agreed that the wasp’s “life-sucking” habits were reminiscent of Rowling’s dementors.

Another creature, a 66-million-year-old dinosaur named Dracorex hogwartsia, also took on a Harry Potter name recently.

In 2015, The Christian Science Monitor’s Shontee Pant reported on the popularity of pop-culture references in scientific naming practices, part of the scientific community's attempts to appeal to a broader audience. She wrote:

With its complex rules and Latin verbiage, the process of naming new species can easily alienate the public from the scientific community, which raises a new research question: How do you make an audience care about a new animal that lacks the charisma of, say, a giant panda?  

The results of the study – which constitute the only appearance of the term "soul-sucking" in the world's largest scientific journal – indicate that the voting public responded “very positively” to learning about the nomenclature process.... “Visitors were highly interested and during the event spent a significant amount of time asking for details and listening to explanations,” wrote the authors.

Growing numbers of scientists, museums, and nonprofits are reaching out to the greater community for inspiration (and cash) as they name their discoveries.

Early this year, for instance, scientists named another new variety of spider for singer Johnny Cash. Aphonopelma johnnycashi was discovered near California’s Folsom Prison, the subject of one of Mr. Cash’s most famous songs.

Pop culture icons as diverse as Beyoncé, Spongebob Squarepants, and Stephen Colbert have all become the namesakes of newly discovered creatures.

In the modern world, crowdsourcing isn’t limited to fundraising for natural disaster relief or college funds. For a small fee, many scientific institutions and nonprofits will allow you to name your own species.

For example, the Scripps Oceanic Institute allows donors to name newly discovered maritime creatures for a donation of at least $5,000 per species.

In 2008, the Monitor’s Randy Dotinga reported that members of the general public were given the chance to name rare hydrothermal vent worms for a donation of $50,000. Naming rights for other creatures, including a sea slug, went for the comparatively meager $15,000 per species.

Proponents of selling naming rights say that it supports research and discovery. A German group called Biopat has raised approximately half a million dollars for scientific research through auctioning off the opportunity to name newly discovered creatures. 

Despite its growing popularity, some critics remain staunchly opposed to auctioning off naming rights.

“There are concerns that profiteering is inappropriate,” says Joe Mendelson, curator of herpetology at Zoo Atlanta. “There are people out in the taxonomy community who say as soon as there’s money involved, 'This is flat-out wrong.' ”