The You Called Me What?! exhibition celebrates 150 years of scientific discovery at Te Papa. A big part of this has been the scientific naming of more than 2500 animal and plant species by museum staff since 1865.The exhibition will showcase several of the new species that Te Papa’s scientists are currently working on, including an Asplenium fern, and a forget-me-not.
A very important part of describing a new species is deciding what its name should be. Many new species are given descriptive names, which reflect some aspect or characteristic of the new organism. But species names can also be geographic (derived from the organism’s location or habitat) or commemorative (named after people or events). Of the 500 suggestions that we’ve received so far for a new forget-me-not, about half fall into one of these three categories: descriptive (~20% of suggestions), geographic (~10%) and commemorative (~20%).
The geographic names suggested so far were based on the mountains (Myosotis mounticolum or mountainensis), bog habitat (palustris), and South Island localities where plants of the new species grows, including zelandia, waipounamense (Māori name for the South Island), otakou (for Otago), garviensis (for the Garvie Mountains), and geriatricii and archaeohomiugumense (both for the Old Man Range… get it?).
Descriptive name suggestions focused on flower and leaf characteristics of plants of the new species. Some focused on aspects of the small, white flower, and I especially enjoyed those suggestions and explanations that creatively used languages other than English, including Myosotis pieknonis (Polish: beautiful), blancaiae (Spanish: white), fleurette and blanchis (French: small flower, white), miniblumen (German: small flowers) and mororikiwaitia (Māori: small and white).
Others came up with some interesting names about the small, hairy (huruhuru), bronze-coloured (aeneifolia) leaves. Some had a go at capturing at least two of these leaf characteristics in one name: minisculobronzum, microcilious, bronze bach (“bach” meaning small in Welsh) and beaggruig (Irish: small hair). But one creative contribution even captured all three: Myosotis pumillaniaenefolium (meaning dwarf wooly bronze leaf)–what a mouthful!
Many suggestions were based on the small size of the plant, including: Myosotis find-me-not, incognitus, modestae, nano, tinyum, dimunitae, kleintje (Dutch: small), bala (Sanskrit: child or baby), and ito (Spanish: suffix meaning small).
Interestingly, several commemorative names have to do with the small size of the plants, which we described in the exhibition as “dwarf” plants. A few remembered the small people in the classic book Gulliver’s Travels (Myosotis lilliputan) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (dopey and bashfulii, but interestingly not Snow White herself… I guess she was too tall), and other minuscule mythical characters such as tinkerbell, fairy, elfscaleyum and lepwet, i.e. a small leprechaun that lives in wet places! But by far the most commonly suggested commemorative names (apart from those honouring themselves or friends & family) were based on the J.R.R. Tolkien books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
“The leaf hairs also remind me of hairy hobbit feet”
Several characters from Tolkien’s books were commemorated, including hobbits (Myosotis bilbo, samwise and hobbittii, “because it is small and hard to find like a hobbit; the leaf hairs also remind me of hairy hobbit feet”), Gollum (gollum, for a preciousssss flower), Gandalf (gandalfium, although he is quite tall!), and of course, the dwarves (gimlii, gloinii, bombur, durinii, moria and dwarrowa, apparently Tolkien’s plural name for dwarves). Comments such as “gimlii, because it is New Zealand’s most famous dwarf” and “[the new species] reminds me of Lord of the Rings flora, and is found in similar terrain” show that many people strongly associate Tolkien’s dwarves with New Zealand South Island mountains, as (of course) the screen adaptations of the Tolkien books were filmed in New Zealand. Interestingly, no one has (yet) suggested the new species be named after New Zealander Sir Peter Jackson, the director who cemented the Tolkien-New Zealand connection.
Tolkien and his characters have already been commemorated numerous times in many genus and species names. Many other famous characters and people have also had species named after them, a practice that goes back over 250 years to the father of botanical nomenclature himself, Carl Linneaus. Most recently, the new Australian species Solanum watneyi was named after the botanist hero Mark Watney in the book The Martian in an effort to promote an interest in botany.
But is naming species after famous people and characters simply a gimmick to try to draw attention to your findings (and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing), or is it just a bit of fun (or does it even matter, as long as we keep making new scientific discoveries)? Will more people hear about the new discovery if we name it “Myosotis [insert-famous-celebrity-name-here]”? But more importantly, how long will such hype last, and what profound effects (if any) will naming new species after famous people have on taxonomy and botany, other than giving the scientist who named the species their 15 minutes of fame? I think the jury is still out on this one… What do you think?
Other quirky names that were suggested but defy placement in any category:
–Myosotis musa, whiskerum, rodento and squeak, relating to the fact that the genus name, Myosotis, means “mouse ear”;
-names about remembering (i.e. forget-me-not!): mahara, wareware, memorandum, rememberiticus, usani ivale (Bantu: don’t forget me), as well as anzacii and gallipolicum (lest we forget);
-not one but three suggestions relating to that other famous naming competition: plantymcplant, mcplantface, and (well, why not) forgetmemcgetface;
-and finally, an inspirational name: fortunae, because “the discovery of new species is something like hope for the future”. Well said!
So there you have it, some of the most common, noteworthy, creative and cringeworthy suggestions we’ve received so far. What is your favourite? Should we choose a descriptive name, or commemorate a character from Lord of the Rings? Or, think you can do better? We haven’t chosen a name yet, and there’s still time to contribute your ideas!
Many thanks to all those who have contributed names so far.