USA fern taxonomists have created a minor stir after re-classifying a group of central American ferns into a new genus named Gaga, after the singer Lady Gaga.
The researchers say the naming for Lady Gaga was in honour of “her articulate and fervent defence of equality and individual expression in today’s society”, linking the celebration of diversity within humans to the study of the intricate diversity in this group of ferns. Further, the Gaga ferns contain a stretch of DNA with the nucleotides GAGA that distinguish them from their close relatives. Lady Gaga also once wore a costume resembling a fern gametophyte (presumably not knowingly), and these taxonomists are apparently big fans of her music.
The 19 species of Gaga ferns were previously classified in the genus Cheilanthes. However, DNA analyses of evolutionary relationships have shown that Cheilanthes is composed of a multitude of unrelated groups, which are therefore undergoing extensive re-classification; Gaga is but one example. From our own research and that of others, it appears that the Cheilanthes in New Zealand are true Cheilanthes and won’t be re-classified.
Naming new species or genera after people is not the ‘done thing’ amongst (most) New Zealand plant taxonomists. The following words I read as a student still resonate strongly with me:
[taxonomists should] “base new names on character states or distinctive habitats that assist in distinguishing a new taxon from its near relatives” (Webb & Edgar 1999).
Utility over sycophancy, perhaps?
That said, sometimes it is hard to come up with a new, unique name, particularly in groups of organisms that contain a lot of undescribed species. Te Papa’s snail expert, Bruce Marshall, has 5 genera and more than 20 species named after him.
What if we were to extend the taxonomic honouring of celebrity to New Zealand – Dobbynii or Finnii, or Irenei or Danii anyone?