The Most Weird Scientific Names

Until the mid-1700s, the names we used to identify living things were… a bit of a mess. At the time, a lot of scientific names were trying to both identify and describe species, and some of them were like 12 words long. In 1753, a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus [lih-NEE-us] tried to fix this problem by developing the simpler, two-word system that we still use today: every species has both a generic name — what we’d call a genus name — followed by its trivial, or species name.

He argued that it didn’t really matter what the name was, as long as every species got a unique label and everybody agreed to use it. That’s why, today, the rules for naming a new species aren’t very strict.

If you find it, you get to name it, and pretty much anything goes, as long as you use the Latin alphabet and the name isn’t too offensive. So if you ever happen to discover a new species and want to name it after your favorite sandwich, Game of Thrones character, or childhood pet, you probably can.

But if you’re really struggling to come up with your dream species name, here are a few ideas.

1. Halorubrum chaoviator

Halorubrum chaoviator

One way to name a species is by going with a clever translation, and maybe a bit of poetic flare. Like the salt-loving bacteria whose Latin name means “traveler of the void.” It earned that name by surviving in outer space… for two years. In 2009, researchers sent samples of the bacteria to the International Space station — or more specifically, to the outside of the space station.

All of the samples were exposed to the vacuum of space, and some of them were totally shielded from the Sun’s rays, some were only partially shielded, and some were completely exposed. The bacteria that got the full blast of the Sun’s radiation all died. But some of the ones that were partially shielded made it, and almost all of the bacteria that were totally protected survived.

2. Osedax mucofloris

Osedax mucofloris

Then there’s Osedax mucofloris [OSS-eh-dax myoo-koh-FLOOR-iss], aka the bone-eating snot flower. Which is exactly what it sounds like. The mucofloris is a pink marine worm that somehow resembles both a frilled flower and something you’d find in a used tissue.

These guys live in whale carcasses on the Atlantic ocean floor, where the females anchor themselves within the bones of the whales’ large skeletons. There, they secrete a special acid that dissolves the bone so they can suck it in … through their skin, since they lack both mouths and guts.

And they really do make themselves at home in these bones. They send their flower-like gill plumes out the side of the bone to collect oxygen, along with a long, tube-like oviduct.

Researchers think they use the oviduct to shoot out fertilized eggs that can then disperse through the water.

3. Gelae


But if you’re not into descriptive translations, you could try a solid pun or just wordplay in general. Like how, when researchers identified a new genus of small, brown and yellow fungus beetles they dubbed it Gelae [jelly], after the Latin gelatus, meaning “congealed” or “jellied.” This made a kind of sense since the tiny round beetles eat, and, therefore, spend most of their time living on slime molds.

The researchers then went on to name five of its species Jelly bean, Jelly belly, Jelly donut, Jelly roll, and Jelly fish, probably just because they could.

4. Heteropoda davidbowie

On the other hand, if you’ve got a new species waiting for a name, you could always just name it after a celebrity. That’s what German entomologist and spider expert Peter Jäger [yay-gir] did in 2008

when he identified a new type of Malaysian spider and named it Heteropoda davidbowie [het-er-OP-uh-duh]. [pic: Seshadri.K.S] Not unlike Aladdin Sane, the spider is big, bright-haired, and fabulous. Davidbowies can be 15-25 millimeters long, and their whole bodies are covered in yellow, orange, and red hair.

They’re also one of over 200 species named by Jäger, and not the first inspired by a celebrity. Many of the species Jäger works with are rare, endangered, and easily overlooked. He estimates there may be only around 500 davidbowies left on their island habitat, and he hoped that by giving them a flashy celebrity name they might pull some headlines of their own, and draw public attention to conservation efforts. Plus there’s that whole Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars thing, too.

5. Scaptia beyonceae

Scaptia beyonceae

While some researchers may name a species after a celebrity to celebrate that person’s achievements, others may just notice a, uh, particular resemblance between their species and a famous person.

In 2011, when curator Bryan Lessard began describing a previously unknown species of Australian horsefly from an old museum collection, he was immediately mesmerized by the fly’s spectacular lower abdomen, bedazzled with dense golden hairs. What a glamorous bum, he thought. One might even call it… “bootylicious.” So he named it Scaptia beyonceae [skap-tee-uh], after Queen Bey herself.

Golden booty or not, most people don’t appreciate the 4000+ species of horseflies in this world — probably because their bites hurt like the dickens and it’s really annoying when one keeps buzzing past your eyeball. But horseflies are actually quite useful citizens of earth.

Adult horse flies are important pollinators- they feed on nectar and move pollen around. Only the females bite, but most of them are anautogenous [an-aw-TOJ-in-iss], meaning they can’t properly reproduce without first eating a hearty blood snack, and you can’t blame a girl for taking care of herself. I’m pretty sure Beyonce even has some songs about that.

6: Kootenichela deppi

Kootenichela deppi

Then there’s the story of paleontologist David Legg, who saw the claw-like front appendages of a 505 million-year-old lobster-like fossil and immediately thought of Edward Scissorhands. The new genus Kootenichela [koo-TEN-itch-ELLA (?)], honored both the place where the fossil was found — Kootenay National Park in British Columbia — and referenced the animal’s most distinctive feature with chela, the Latin word for claw. And the species name deppi honored Johnny Depp, the film’s sharp-fingered star.

At about 4 centimeters long, Kootenichela deppi was relatively small and probably used its big claws to capture or scavenge for prey along shallow sea bottoms. It’s essentially the precursor to today’s arthropods, like crabs and scorpions, as well as spiders, centipedes, and insects.

7. Ampulex dementor

Ampulex dementor

Now if celebrities aren’t your thing, you could always name a newly-found species after your favorite fictional character. Since science types often enjoy science fiction, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Harry Potter, Tolkien, and Star Wars fandoms are already well-represented.

For example: meet the J.K. Rowling-inspired Ampulex dementor, a kind of cockroach wasp. These wasps have the charming habit of zombifying their prey, the way the hooded guards of Azkaban suck the souls right out of their victims.

Native to Thailand, dementor wasps stab roaches in the belly, injecting them with a mind-controlling venom that leaves them technically able to move, but unable to control their bodies.

That makes it easy for the wasp to haul them away and chow down, meeting a fate only the worst Death Eater deserves.

8. Sauroniops pachytholus

Sauroniops pachytholus

In 2007, paleontologists digging in Morocco unearthed a fossilized skull fragment, discovering a new large, carnivorous dinosaur. The fragment was mostly of the upper skull but included an eye socket. They named it Sauroniops [sore-on-ee-ops] because — in the words of study leader Andrea Cau — “the idea of a predator that is physically known only as its fierce eye reminded me of Sauron.”

Aren’t nerds the best? The fossil suggests the animal was a toothy, two-legged terror, probably as big as a T-Rex, and as scary as Sauron himself, although without more fossils it’s hard to say for sure. Broad and thick, with a distinct lump on its forehead, a Sauroniops skull looks a bit different than other two-legged dinosaurs from that area. Researchers think males may have used their head-lumps to compete for ladies with some good old fashioned head butting.

9: Smaug


But Sauron’s not the only hobbit enemy getting props. There’s also the aptly-named genus Smaug, which contains a group of eight medium-sized African girdled lizards. As members of the cordylidae [kor-dill-i-dee] family, they’re noted for their well-armored bodies, roughly scaled tails, and large spines.

They are basically mini-dragons. Smaug species are insectivores, give birth to live young, and are bigger than most members of their taxonomic family. They live in deep and narrow rock crevices, or in one case, tight underground burrows. Which makes the name even more appropriate, since Tolkien probably named his dragon Smaug after the German word for squeezing through a hole.

So many layers of meaning here!

10. Han solo

Han solo

And finally, no list of fun names would be complete without a Star Wars reference, and my favorite has got to be Han solo. Not the character — well, maybe the character — but the actual species. It’s a type of trilobite [try-luh-bite] — a very old, fossilized group of extinct marine arthropods — and its official scientific name is just straight up Han solo.

Researcher Samuel Turvey does admit that his friends dared him to name something after a Star Wars character. But the name is actually very clever. For one thing, the fossil was discovered in the Hunan [hoo-non] Province of China and the Han people are a large Chinese ethnic group.

The animal also happens to be the only known member of its family, hence the “solo”. Trilobites were also diverse, widely distributed, and if you can find one, they’re often nearly as well preserved as Harrison Ford in carbonite. These are just a few examples of species with clever, amusing names.

So if you ever have the opportunity to name a species of your own, don’t be afraid to get creative.

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