As a new website seeks to bring order to the naming of animal species, Michael North admires the handiwork of some of biology's creative jokers
The Hitler beetle is a small, blind insect that lurks in the darkness of just 15 caves in central Slovenia. It was discovered by amateur entomologist Vladimir Kodric in 1933, the hapless creature being called Anophthalmus hitleri in honour of the German dictator who came to power the same year. The name has proved to be a curse, as the beetle is now being driven to extinction by collectors of Hitler memorabilia.
Then there is Preseucoila imallshookupis , a species of gall wasp named last year after a lyric from one of Elvis Presley's greatest hits. In fact, there are a remarkable number of improbably named creatures in the canon of animal taxonomy. But the days of biologists having a completely free hand to label new species after their favourite dictator or song could be numbered.
An online initiative by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature aims to bring records of all existing animal species under one virtual roof. It will also monitor the naming of new discoveries.
Zoological taxonomy has been a rather permissive affair since the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus got the ball rolling with Systema Naturae in 1735. Under that system, a species name consists of the genus - the higher order denoted by a capital letter - plus a second name devised by the discoverer. It can be more complicated. For example, a sub-genus can sometimes be given in parentheses after the genus, hence Bison (Bison) bison bison - the scientific name of the, erm, bison.
Before registering a new name, scientists have to trawl through endless websites. The ZooBank website is intended to change that, and in the ICZN's bid to homogenise global taxonomy, it will be free to all users when it launches in 2008, the 250th anniversary of Linnaeus's death.
Andrew Polaszek, a member of the ICZN's four-strong secretariat based at the Natural History Museum in London, says the aim of ZooBank is to be "easy, attractive and useful". It will, for example, provide an online form for registering discoveries.
"The first thing someone needs to figure out when they think they have a new species is what it could be," Polaszek says. "If they have to search through 15 different journals, this will take time. People need to know what species are described in a particular group of animals with one click of the mouse."
Polaszek spent 12 years confirming his discovery of four new species of parasitic wasp.
Some 1.5 million animal species have been named to date, while scientists believe there may be 60 million still unrecorded. With DNA sequencing, up to 20,000 new species are discovered each year, from microscopic beasts to monkeys, two of which were named in 2004.
There is a real need for one umbrella resource to cover this work, according to Charles Godfray, director of the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London. "Taxonomy is a global activity, and descriptions of new species can be published in thousands of different journals and in any language," he says. "Keeping track of this is a huge task, and ZooBank will simplify this and give taxonomists more time to concentrate on scientific rather than book-keeping aspects of their subject."
Polaszek says the initiative will iron out some of the time-wasting confusions in taxonomy. For example, the use of exotic languages that make for unpronounceable names - witness the Ekgmowechashala (an early Miocene American primate), which means "small fox man" in Lakota. It will also rationalise some of the arbitrary decisions that research groups sometimes make in renaming species. In a recent case, the renaming of an Australian crayfish ended up being very costly as legal paperwork drawn up using the old name had to be updated.
Though the 22 ICZN commissioners do not intend to change existing names, there will certainly be more consultation on new submissions. The ICZN code states that "no author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds".
So out go politically sensitive names that might echo Anophthalmus hitleri as well as possibly some of the cruder names such as Scrotum humanum , a dinosaur whose bones apparently resemble testicles. But Polaszek says that it will be hard to entirely stamp out silliness, "because silliness is something of a continuum" in the science. "You can name a species after Adolf Hitler, George Bush, Kate Bush or any other favourite bush," he says.
HOBBITS, GRETA GARBO AND VAMPIRE SQUID FROM HELL
Brachyanax thelestrephones : a fly species, Greek for "little chief nipple twister"
Aegrotocatellus : a trilobite, meaning "sick puppy"
Vampyroteuthis infernalis : a relative of the squid, meaning "vampire squid from hell"
Campsicnemius charliechaplini : a fly named after Charlie Chaplin because of its tendency to die with its midlegs in a bandy-legged position
Psephophorus terrypratchetti : a fossil turtle, in honour of author Terry Pratchett whose fantasy books are set in a world carried on the back of a giant turtle
Hyla stingi : a Colombian tree frog named after the rock star Sting in recognition of his work for the rainforest
Rostropria garbo : a diapriid wasp described as "a solitary female" Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus: an amphipod discovered in 1926 with the longest genus name in zoology
Frodospira : a genus of Silurian gastropod, named after a certain hobbit
Crepidula fornicata : a hermaphroditic limpet that forms stacks of individuals
Cuterebra emasculator : a species of bot fly that prevents the full development of the testes of its squirrel or chipmunk host
Pulchrapollia : an extinct Eocene parrot, translates as "pretty Polly"
Bufonaria borisbeckeri : a species of sea snail named after the German tennis star
Muscatheres : a genus of bee fly of which there are only three known specimens
Erechthias beeblebroxi : a tineid moth with a false head, named after Zaphod Beeblebrox, a two-headed character from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy