Selling species: For fee, get your name on a bug

Sun Journal

Taxonomy: Anyone willing to pay at least $2,500 can choose an uncataloged creature and attach a handle that it will never escape.

February 20, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Deep in the rain forests of Bolivia there lives a tiny brown toad with a bright yellow stripe and a very odd name -- Bufo stanlaii, literally, "Stan Lai's toad."

Stan Lai is not a scientist. He is a 31-year-old investment banker on Wall Street. He has never set foot in Bolivia, and until two weeks ago he had never heard of his exotic alter ego or the biologists who discovered it.

Nevertheless, they plan to officially name the toad in his honor when they introduce it to the scientific community in a journal article this year.

To understand this, it helps to know something about the strange and troubled world of taxonomy, especially in Germany.

Taxonomy is the science of naming and cataloging living things. For two centuries it was considered one of biology's highest callings, attracting such luminaries as Charles Darwin.

Today, taxonomy is a backwater, ignored by students and patrons of science in favor of genetics and other cutting-edge careers.

As a result, many of the 10,000 new organisms discovered each year wind up pinned or pickled in the dusty drawers of a museum, unnamed and largely unexamined.

To reduce the backlog, a group of German taxonomists has decided to copy colleges, hospitals and other institutions, exchanging immortality for cash.

Last month they formed a nonprofit organization. In return for a donation, taxonomists will let you pick a name for one of the organisms in their drawers -- your very own biological vanity plate.

"People don't understand how important taxonomy is," says Claus Batke, president of Biopat, the nonprofit coordinating the effort. "Giving a name to something and describing it is the basis for all future research about that thing."

On the Biopat Web site (, shoppers can browse a catalog of unnamed species ranging from orchids to sea slugs. The starting price: $2,500. Organizers say half the money goes to the institution studying the specimen, the other half to protect biodiversity in the organism's home country.

Already seven donors have snapped up species, including a German man seeking the perfect 20th-wedding-anniversary gift for his wife, a European tanning-bed manufacturer, and Lara Lai, who picked Bufo stanlaii as a birthday gift for her husband.

"It's just something that most people don't have," she says.

But the effort to commercialize taxonomy has set off a buzz in online discussion groups.

Some scientists worry that it could lead to widespread fraud by "taxonomic cowboys" who would resell species that have already been named to make a quick buck.

Others cringe at the thought of polluting the scientific catalog with thousands of frivolous names -- or turning it into a advertising billboard -- Bufo budweiseri, anyone?

One European scientist suspects Biopat is a ploy by rich Germans to conquer the animal world -- a kind of critter colonialism.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in London, which ensures that every animal has a unique scientific name, fired off a letter last week to the journal Science denouncing Biopat as "a striking departure from scientific tradition" that would "irreversibly obscure science and hinder conservation efforts."

That tradition dates to the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who began systematically classifying and naming organisms in the 18th century. Since then, taxonomists have generally named a new species for its appearance or its discoverer.

But not always.

Some taxonomists have honored their favorite celebrities. There's the sea snail Bufonaria borisbeckeri and a midge called Dicrotendipes thanatogratus, which is Latin for "Grateful Dead."

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner even has -- what else? -- a bunny named after him: Sylvilagus palustris hefneri. It's now on the endangered-species list.

Others taxonomists like to pun. There are the beetles Agra vation and Agra phobia, the wasps Heerz lukenatcha and Verae peculya, and the snails Ba humbugi and Abra cadabra.

Some creatures carry names whose taste is far too questionable to be printed in a family newspaper. The father of taxonomy might be one of the worst offenders.

"Linnaeus was just a filthy old man," says Doug Yanega, an entomologist at the University of California at Riverside who maintains an online list of strange scientific names. Among Linnaeus' most memorable choices: the mollusk Penicillus penis and the earwig Labia minor.

"I dare you to explain how that name is descriptive for an earwig," Yanega says.

Scientists occasionally use their appellative powers for revenge. When Johann Siegesbeck dismissed Linnaeus' anatomical species names as "loathsome harlotry," Linnaeus honored him by naming a plant Siegesbeckia. It was a small and ugly weed.

Many scientists frown on their more creative colleagues and would like to see some names disappear. Case in point: In 1934 German paleontologist Paul Guthorl dubbed a large fossilized insect Rochlingia hitleri to honor the country's chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

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