Want scientific immortality? Name a sea worm
Alicia Chang, Associated Press Yahoo News 30 Jun 08;
Jeff Goodhartz is single and has no children. But he wanted to ensure the family name would live on after he's gone.
So he paid $5,000 to have a newfound sea worm given the Goodhartz name, "goodhartzorum."
"This really jazzes me up," said the 55-year-old high school math teacher whose namesake is translucent with a flamboyant blue tuft. "It will be out there, the family name."
And it will be swimming in the Belize mangroves where someone else discovered it.
Goodhartz bought the naming rights from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which unveiled its name-a-species program earlier this year. This modern twist on taxonomy is a way to raise research money, and lots of groups have been doing it.
But its growing popularity has rekindled a debate over whether the practice invites fake discoveries and has led to a push for oversight.
"It is conceivable that someone could fabricate a new species in order to make money, if it were shown to be lucrative," said Andrew Polaszek, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
Taxonomy ranks among the world's oldest professions, dating back to 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who popularized the classification system still in use today. Of the 30 million or so species of animals, plants and microbes on Earth, only about 1.8 million have been named and identified so far.
Traditionally, the discoverer gets to christen the new organism. All living things have a two-part scientific name, usually in Latin. It's common for discoverers to name a new species after themselves or in honor of their spouses, children, colleagues, benefactors or even celebrities.
In recent years, species names have gone from finders keepers to being auctioned off or sold to donors to support research as other funding has dried up. Not all species are created equal. The rarer and more evolved the organism, the more money it tends to fetch.
Doug Yanega, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, wants a clearinghouse to review and publish animal names. Right now, species monikers are scattered across scores of scientific journals — some with weaker peer review than others.
Global efforts are under way to catalog species, but they tend to sort out existing names and compliance is voluntary. The Census of Marine Life, which chronicles sea animals, last week confirmed 122,500 marine species names so far and 56,400 aliases — different names that have been given to the same species over the years.
Yanega has no problem with credible scientists selling naming rights to fund their work, but he fears unethical people could see this as a moneymaking scheme.
"The potential for abuse is still too large," Yanega said. "It's too easy to do an end-around and exploit the system."
Most researchers say faking species names is a rare occurrence, but that could change if it became profitable.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which publishes rules on animal names, doesn't have a position on the matter, said Ellinor Michel, who heads the group.
At Scripps, before an animal is put up for sale, researchers run a background check in scientific journals and perform DNA tests to make sure it's unique.
"We wouldn't offer a species name unless we're absolutely certain it's never been described before," said Scripps curator Greg Rouse, who had an Australian feather-duster worm — Pseudofabriciola rousei — named for him by a colleague.
Rouse is also the discoverer of Goodhartz's featherworm. Rouse found it in an underwater mangrove while snorkeling off the coast of Belize two years ago. It is not only a new species, but part of a new genus of Belize featherworms too, he said.
Though the species will be called goodhartzorum, Rouse is still deciding the genus name.
Among the more successful conservation groups to sponsor species names is the German nonprofit Biopat, which has raised $700,000 since 1999 for biodiversity research through the sale of more than 100 species ranging from frogs to beetles to spiders.
Several recent high-profile online auctions have put a spotlight on naming rights.
In 2005, the Wildlife Conservation Society raised $650,000 for a new monkey species in Bolivia. The primate was named after the highest bidder, Internet casino GoldenPalace.com, known for all sorts of oddball purchases including a grilled cheese sandwich half that the owner claimed bore the image of the Virgin Mary.
The monkey's scientific name — Callicebus aureipalatii — is Latin for "Golden Palace," but it's informally known as the "GoldenPalace.com Monkey."
Last year, the Florida Museum of Natural History netted $40,800 from an anonymous donor for a novel Mexican butterfly species. The insect was named after a deceased Ohio mother of three sons who fought in World War II.
Zoologist Jon Norenburg of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has nothing against the species name trade since taxonomy is steeped in vanity and selling names falls into that tradition. But he warned that someone's preferred name may not always pass scientific muster.
"Donors need to be aware that there's the possibility that their name could get sunk," he said. "It's kind of like financial investing. You need to ask, `What's the fine print?'"
Besides the Belize featherworm, Scripps also has sold a $5,000 Australian featherworm to a woman who planned to name it after her husband as an anniversary gift, and a $10,000 spiny worm to cell phone maker Nokia Corp.
Nokia spokeswoman Jackie Evory said the company held a contest and will Latinize the winning entry, which happens to be its slogan, "Connecting People."
Still up for grabs is a $15,000 sea slug, a pair of bone-feeding worms for $25,000 each and $50,000 rare hydrothermal vent worm. Donors receive a framed photo of their namesake and a copy of the scientific paper that describes the species.
Goodhartz, the teacher from suburban San Diego, never bushwhacked through tropical rain forests or dived in perilous waters to hunt for undiscovered critters.
But he's headed for scientific immortality and understands there will always be people who disagree with his purchase.
"I haven't earned this like a scientist," he said. But he added, "If it helps Scripps, how can that be bad?"
On the Net: International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature: http://www.iczn.org
Scripps Institution of Oceanography: http://sio.ucsd.edu
Jul 1, 2008
Want scientific immortality? Name a sea worm