In Punta Colonet, a small region in Baja California, Mexico, a rare succulent blooms in the name of Jimi Hendrix.
Biologist Mark Dodero was supposedly listening to Hendrix when he chanced upon an unusual pinkish succulent, which had apparently never been described to science. The plant, the thin stalk of which grows to be about 1 foot high, is a summer deciduous. In other words, it “dies” every summer before regrowing in the fall.
When it came time to name the succulent, researchers chose Dudleya hendrixii – “Hendrix’s live forever.” Researchers first described the species in an October issue of the journal Madroño.
Scientists, like most of us, consume pop culture. That’s why species like D. hendrixii are so common – nomenclature is just another way of honoring beloved artists and actors. The name Gnathia marleyi, bestowed on a species of Caribbean crustacean, was inspired by the late Bob Marley. A slew of other celebrities, from Beyoncé to Bill Gates, were namesakes for newly discovered species. And don’t forget Spongiforma squarepantsii, a fungus first discovered in 2011.
Chris Gaylord reported for The Christian Science Monitor:
Celebrity species began with Carl Linnaeus, who invented modern taxonomy in the 1750s. According to legend, the Swedish botanist named dayflowers Commelinaceae after the Commelyn family. He chose the name because of its two upward-facing petals and one small, pale petal below – a fitting match since, at the time, two of the Commelyn brothers found great success in science, while the third amounted to little.
But there may be more to this convention than light-hearted wordplay – celebrity nomenclature may also be a smart, conservation-minded PR move.
Like politics, conservation is a game of public appeal. It takes a lot of money to keep threatened species kicking, so environmental activists tend to focus on the most marketable ones. These “charismatic megafauna” – species such as bald eagles, giant pandas, and humpback whales – have the broad appeal necessary to secure funding for conservation efforts.
In 2008, a study published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation showed that the covers of US nature and conservation magazines mostly featured large-bodied mammals and birds over reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.
A newly discovered ground beetle, for example, is unlikely to generate the same response. But what if you named it something like Agra schwarzeneggeri? By evoking movie stars and musicians, researchers can draw attention to the plight of these animals – and maybe secure some good press for themselves while they’re at it.
And that may be good news for D. hendrixii. This humble succulent’s entire known habitat is contained within a two-acre plot, continually edged by traffic and development. In other words, it can use all the help it can get.
"It's the Mexican equivalent of an endangered species, although they don't use the same criteria we do in the United States," co-author Michael Simpson, a plant biologist at San Diego State University, said in a statement.
Researchers have urged Mexican wildlife officials to introduce protective measures for the threatened plant. That effort, like many others before it, could meet resistance from industry groups and ranchers. But at least they’ll have a household name on their side.
"Celebrity names are a wonderful way to have a little fun and draw attention to the biodiversity crisis," Quentin Wheeler, entomologist and president of State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, told the Monitor in 2012. "Our best estimate is that there are 10 million species awaiting discovery and naming. There's a good chance that millions of species will go extinct this century before they were ever discovered."