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Names for new species

Afarensis talks about the sale of naming rights for a new owl butterfly species. Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae was named for Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller. The right to name the species was auctioned for $40,800. The money went to support Mexican butterfly research.

Once upon a time, taxonomists named species in honour of their patrons. Even today, a beer can sometimes earn you a species named in your honour. In this context, selling the rights to a species name isn’t all that unusual, and I can’t complain too much if the money goes for research. But we shouldn’t be returning to the days in which scientists were dependent on wealthy patrons. While Afarensis saw it as a dangerous precedent (looking forward with distaste to the idea of Australopithecus microsoftecus), I see it more as a return to an outdated model. Species names should be descriptive, they should convey some information about the species. The specific epithet blythekitzmillerae tells me nothing about the species.

The issue of selling naming rights should never come up. Sure, they could sell the rights to their made up common name – let someone pay $40,000 to name Blythe Kitzmiller’s owl butterfly. Far too many people see scientific names as nothing but a string of latinised words that are there to confuse them. Using trivial or meaningless names only heightens that perception. It doesn’t mean the names have to be prosaic – I love clever puns. But please, keep the names meaningful.

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