What's in a (Species) Name? Maybe the Power to Fend Off Extinction

By Joseph Calamia | July 19, 2010 5:49 pm

seapigletshrimpThe blue pepper-pot beetle, St. John’s jellyfish, and the queen’s executioner beetle–these distinctly British-sounding organisms share a few things in common. For one, they all have brand new names, thanks to the ingenuity of the British public.

The trio received these new names from public entries in a competition organized by The Guardian, Natural England, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Other similarities include (perhaps unsurprisingly) that they all live in the UK, and that they’re all threatened with extinction.

One usually pictures an organism’s discoverer naming her find, or the organism’s common name coming from obvious characteristics (like lighting bugs or fireflies, for example), but sometimes critters just slip through the cracks; these ten were previously known only by their official scientific classifications. That made it hard, the competition’s organizers suspected, for the public to care whether or not these rare creatures disappeared. The naming competition, thought up by Guardian columnist George Monbiot, was meant to make the threatened organisms more identifiable and relatable to the public.

Comparing the cuddly appeal of the sea piglet shrimp (pictured above) vs Arrhis phyllonyx, it seems they accomplished their goal. The competition had over 3,000 entries, from which the judges picked a winner and two runners-up for each of the species based on how well the name matched the organism’s looks, habitat, and behavior. The naming competition’s overall winner was the queen’s executioner beetle, a black hooded bug from Windsor.

No matter who won, Monbiot sees the competition as a whole as a success.

“Judging the competition was very hard, as in every case there were at least half a dozen names that deserved to win…. Not only were they practical and distinctive, many of them also captured the magic and mystery of England’s wildlife.”

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Image: Moskal, Wojciech /World Register of Marine Species

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