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Name that bat for the holidays

By / December 8, 2008



When science budgets get tight, one can imagine folks sitting around the lab bench and brainstorming, if only half in jest: Do we need to hold a bake sale?

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No? How about an auction? Say, auctioning the right to name new species? That's the approach Purdue University professor John Bickham is taking to help fund expeditions to catalog biodiversity in far-flung places. Just in time for the holidays, you can bid for the right to tack your name -- or that of someone you hold dear -- onto species he and his team discover. For starters, here's naming opportunity No. 1:  a small yellow bat, a relative of Rhogeessa tumida. It calls Mexico and Central America its home.

The name game as fundraising tool certainly isn't new.  The Keck 10-meter telescopes on Hawaii's Mauna Kea comes to mind, along with the Allen Radiotelescope Array in northern California. Each facility was built with a hefty chunk of change coming from the checkbook of its namesake or of a foundation its namesake established.

The notion of attaching one's name to something scientific and lasting has a rich tradition, no pun intended (OK, maybe it was). For instance, big-bucks barons like Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Institution of Washington, now the Carnegie Institution for Science. Even the venerable Smithsonian Institution in Washington grew out of a $500,000 (in 1835 dollars) gift to the US government from British scientist James Smithson.

Other naming schemes, which wrap themselves in a cloak colored in scientific pastel, stem from an interest to turn a buck, and have little more than novelty value.  At least two companies offer, for a decidedly modest price, to name a star after you or someone you designate. This comes complete with spiffy certificate and a star finder of sorts to locate your nominee's "sun."

The problem, as they acknowledge in their F.A.Q. pages: The names will never be immortalized in astronomy texts or official astronomy records. The International Astronomical Union is in charge of tacking names onto celestial objects -- typically to honor people who have made significant contributions to astronomy. But, hey, the commercial name-star match-up will reside in a registry at the US Copyright office.

Dr. Bickham's effort has a more serious purpose. The hunt for new species is expensive. The process for recording it and verifying it as truly new is expensive. And while researchers and funding agencies recognize the importance of discovering more about the remarkable diversity of life on Earth, the spirit often is more willing than the wallet.

The right to name a species falls to the scientist who identifies it as new. Last May, for instance, word filtered out of East Carolina University that biologist Jason Bond had christened a new species of trap-door spider Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, in honor of Canadian rock legend Neil Young.  Bickham, who also is the head of Purdue's Center for the Environment, notes that he and colleagues recently discovered a pocket gopher that received the name Geomys texensis bakeri, in honor of a professor Bickham studied with, Robert Baker.

The name-auction approach has a track record in biology. Groups like Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society have turned a pretty fundraising  penny or two by auctioning naming rights for new species. The good news: The name finds a potentially wider readership than the good folks at the Copyright office!

Hmmm. Let's see. Homo sapiens spotti?

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