When Thomas Platt, a newly retired biology professor from Saint Mary’s College, discovered a previously unknown species of parasite, he chose to name it after his fifth cousin, twice removed: President Obama.
Baracktrema obamai is a 2-inch long, thread-like, parasitic flatworm that infects the lungs of two species of freshwater turtles in Southeast Asia. The flatworm represents the discovery of not only a new species, but a new genus – the level of biological classification above species.
It's a compliment, says Dr. Platt.
"It's long. It's thin," and it's very "cool," Platt told the Associated Press, explaining why the parasite reminded him of the president. He added that Baracktrema obamai "are phenomenally incredibly resilient organisms. I hold them in awe and with phenomenal respect."
Platt has discovered more than 30 species over the course of his career studying turtle viruses, and has made a habit of naming them after people he admires, including his father-in-law and his doctoral advisor. Turtle parasites are often studied because they are believed to be related to flatworms that carry schistosomiasis.
Both the black marsh turtle and southeast Asian box turtle in which the Baracktrema obamai parasite resides are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's list of threatened species. Ironically, perhaps, the turtles’ endangered status makes researching their parasites more complicated.
"Like their marine counterparts ... freshwater turtles are gaining protection and obtaining higher conservation status such that examination of these hosts for parasites may become increasingly prohibited," the researchers wrote.
Both turtle species will come under greater protection if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is ratified, Politico reports, as all countries involved would be obligated to protect endangered species.
This is not the first time that the president has inspired new nomenclature. In 2012, another parasite was named Paragordius obamai after being discovered near the birthplace of Obama’s father in Kenya. Looking at somewhat larger organisms, the 44th president's name has also been bestowed upon the spider Aptostichus barackobamai, the extinct lizard species Obamadon gracilis, and the Etheostoma obama spangled darter fish, among others.
“It is a unique component of the diversity of life on this planet,” Platt told the LA Times. “Anyone should consider it an honor.”
Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.