Naming a new species is a complicated task. There are entire tomes filled with regulations about proper taxonomic protocol, with biologists of various sorts navigating those rules in the hopes that their name will be both evocative and lasting. That's what makes a newly-named fossil beetle a bit of an oddity.

The Cretaceous insect, preserved in 99 million-year-old amber, is remarkable in its own right. As paleontologist Shûhei Yamamoto and colleagues note, Kekveus jason is now the oldest known member of featherwing beetles - tiny insects with fluffy, parachute-like hindwings. But what I want to highlight here is this arthropod's name.

Kekveus doesn't mean anything. As the paper describing the beetle states, the genus name "is a meaningless combination of letters." That's rather strange, especially in a field when genus names are often evocative. (Think Tyrannosaurus, the "tyrant lizard", or the "large-horned face" Megacerops.) But Yamamoto and colleagues took this unusual route because how quickly relationships between little-known prehistoric creatures can shift.

The logic for the nonsense name, a Field Museum press release points out, is that sometimes little-understood fossil species are lumped into pre-existing genera as new analyses make new systematic connections. In these cases the genus name gets thrown in the taxonomic dustbin while the species name often persists. I can't agree with study co-author Vasily Grebennikov that genus names should never have meaning outside of honorifics, but I get the argument - if the new beetle turns out to be similar to a genus already known, the new genus name might have to be crossed out. Only time will tell if Kekveus stays on the books.

A close-up of Kekveus jason. Credit: Shuhei Yamamoto Field Museum

Name: Kekveus jason

Meaning: Kekveus is a string of letters with no meaning, while jason is a reference to the Greek mythical hero. 

Age: Cretaceous, about 99 million years old.

Where in the world?: Hukawng Valley, Mynanmar.

What sort of organism?: A featherwing beetle.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A single beetle preserved in amber.


Yamamoto, S., Grebennikov, V., Takahashi, Y. 2018. Kekveus jason gen. et sp. nov. from Cretaceous Burmese amber, the first extinct genus and the oldest named featherwing beetle (Coleoptera: Ptiliidae: Discheramocephalini). Cretaceous Research. doi: 10.1016/j.cretres.2018.05.016

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