In 200 years, Beyoncé might be gone and forgotten, but a horsefly species, Scaptia beyonceae, will still be carrying her name.
Many celebrities have their names associated with some kind of animal species: The frog species Hyla stingi is named after Sting. The spider species Pachygnatha zappa is named for Frank Zappa. There are at least nine species named after former president Barack Obama, including a parasitic worm (Paragordius obamai), an extinct lizard (Obamadon gracilis) and a blood fluke found in turtles (Baracktrema obamai).
Having a species named after you seems pretty cool. But if you aren’t a celebrity, how do you make that happen? And why would you even want to?
One answer to the latter is that having your name on a species allows you to leave behind a legacy, even if it is a small one. Scientists may be tracking that particular species for centuries, and the criteria for changing a species name is demanding enough that it is not done lightly. Knowing this, it is comforting to think your name will carry on for years to come. Additionally, having a species named after you gives you serious bragging rights and is an easy go-to icebreaker.
The problem is that getting any species named after you is pretty hard. Describing a particular species is a lot of work, requiring not only accurate descriptions and drawings of it but also a vast working knowledge of its place within the larger framework of taxonomy. There are a lot of rules involved in animal species naming, all found in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, including the rule that you cannot name a species after yourself. Thus, even if you did find a new animal species and went through the laborious process of describing it and publishing your results, you still couldn’t attribute your name to it.
So if you can’t give a new species your name yourself, how do you get someone else to name one after you? One option is perhaps the most obvious: become famous—like, Beyoncé-level famous. If, by chance, you can’t manage that, your second-best choice is having a good relationship with a zoologist—one of the scientists who study everything from animal behavior to taxonomy and physical attributes.
Zoologists can be entomologists (who study insects), ornithologists (who study birds), parasitologists (who study —what else?—parasites), paleontologists (who study extinct species from the distant past), and many more. These specialists are the ones with the training to identify novel species that are just different enough from the hundreds of other they have seen to warrant the classification “new.”
A lot of zoologists name such novel twigs on the tree of life after friends, family and colleagues. For instance, Janine Caira, a shark tapeworm specialist at the University of Connecticut who has named more than 200 species, designated the first new tapeworm species she found Calliobothrium evani, after her friend Evan, who dissected her first shark with her in Baja California. She has also named many tapeworm species after fishers who have helped her catch the sharks and rays that hold her beloved specimens.
If you don’t have a zoologist friend or colleague, or haven’t helped one out during fieldwork, there’s always cold, hard cash. Many university biology departments hold yearly auctions to raise money for graduate students, and it is not unheard of to have the right to name a species new to science auctioned as a prize. At an auction at the 30th anniversary the University of Connecticut ecology and evolutionary biology department, for example, one of the top prizes was “A tapeworm to call your very own!” The winner: a dentist who bid $3,000 and named the tapeworm after her sons.
These auctions aren’t limited to universities, either. In 2018 the Rainforest Trust auctioned off the rights to name 12 different species found in South America, including four frogs, a salamander, a mouse and an ant with some very sharp pincers. The starting bid for each was $10,000, and the proceeds went to purchasing land in South America for conservation purposes.
Needless to say, it isn’t easy to get a species named after you, and having one is considered a great honor. Not only does it ensure your legacy and name are remembered by people in the future, but it also signifies the importance you had in someone’s life while living, whether it be through fame, fortune or just who you know.
By the way, the horsefly named after Beyoncé (S. beyonceae) got its name, in part, because of its bright gold rear. Enough said.