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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Liken Yourself to a Lichen: Designate a Species with Your Name or Your Pooch's

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horsehair lichen

This newly discovered horsehair lichen needs a name. Image: Jason Hollinger

If you discovered a new species, what would you name it? Some scientists go the descriptive route: Bambiraptor is a little raptor. Others try to make a joke – Aha ha is a species of Australian wasp named in 1977 by the entomologist Arhold Menke as a joke (Menke also used the name for his vanity license plate). Others are just sort of odd: Myzocallis khawaluokalani is an aphid whose name supposedly translates from Hawaiian to "you fish on your side of the lagoon and I'll fish on the other, and no one will fish in the middle." There are species named after famous people: Strigiphilus garylarsoni is a louse named after the cartoonist Gary Larson. And after the scientists themselves: Linnaeus named Linnea borealis after himself. But in the past ten years a new trend has emerged in species names: selling them to the highest bidder.

This time, if you're willing to cough up the cash, you can have your very own horsehair lichen named for whoever, or whatever your desire (sorry, Polemistus chewbacca is already taken by a wasp). Trevor Goward, a Canadian botanist, discovered the lichen in British Columbia, where it grows in hairy mats along the branches of trees. The proceeds of the bidding go to the Ancient Forest Alliance, a non-profit conservation group in British Columbia working to conserve the old growth forests in the area. Bidding on the name, organized by charitybuzz, ends tonight.

This isn't the first time scientists have put their discoveries up for auction. In 2008, Purdue University auctioned off the names to seven bats and two turtles. In 2007 the names for ten new species brought in $2 million for conservation projects in Indonesia, and in 2009 Steven Colbert harnessed the power of his viewers to win him the rights to Agaporomorphus colberti – a Venezuelan diving beetle.

So, if you had the bucks, what would you name the lichen? After you dog? Your husband? Your favorite Twilight character? Think carefully, because whatever it is, it will most likely last far longer than you will. (Post your ideas below in comments.)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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