On the Origin of (Wackily Named) Species

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
One detail I didn’t include in my confession that I am a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory consideration of the emotional evolution of Sheldon Cooper: Cooper, a fake scientist, has been celebrated by actual scientists. In 2012, the Brazilian biologists André Nemésio of the Universidade Federal de Uberlândia and Rafael Ferrari of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais identified a new species of euglossine bee. In honor of Sheldon's favorite catchphrase, they named the creature Euglossa bazinga.
They chose the name, the scientists explained, because “Bazinga” is the word the otherwise deadpan-happy Sheldon uses to clue others in to the fact that he’s joking about something. Since Euglossa bazinga had previously been misidentified as Euglossa ignite, a similar bee species, the biologists wanted a name, they explained, that would suggest that animal’s unconscious trickery. Hence: Bazinga.
But Euglossa bazinga is certainly not the only animal to take its name from pop culture.
It’s not even the only animal to take its name from The Big Bang Theory. There is, for example, as my colleague Julie has pointed out, a large overlap between scientists and fans of The Lord of the Rings series:  

Several newly discovered animal species have been named after characters from the books—a genus of wasps in New Zealand is now called Shireplitis, with species S. bilboi, S.  frodoi, S. meriadoci, S. peregrini, S. samwisei and S. tolkieni. The wasps bear the names of the hobbits because they too are “small, short, and stout,” according to a press release. On the other side of the size spectrum, paleontologists named a 900-pound ancient crocodile Anthracosuchus balrogus, after the Balrog, a giant whip-wielding fire monster from The Lord of the Rings. There is also a dinosaur named after Sauron, which seems kinda harsh to me.

Celebrities, too, from Angelina Jolie to Barack Obama, from Stephen Colbert to Lou Reed, have leant their names to newly discovered lichens and lemurs. And there are many other species that have been, Bazinga-style, named after popular movies and TV shows. A small sampling, from the site Curious Taxonomy:
  • Agra smurf, a ground beetle discovered in 2000 and named for the creature’s Smurfine head shape
  • Annuntidiogenes worfi, a cretaceous hermit crab discovered in 2009 whose ornament “recalls the forehead of Star Trek’s Mr. Worf”
  • Spongiforma squarepantsii, a mushroom discovered in Borneo in 2011 “that was so unusual in its spongelike form, the researchers named it after Spongebob Squarepants, the world’s most famous sponge”
  • Adelopsis dumbo, a leiodid beetle discovered in 2001 and so named “because the beetle’s aedeagus, which resembles an elephant proboscis, has at its tip a very large lateral projection resembling an ear”
  • Aptostichus sarlacc, a trapdoor spider discovered in 2012 and named for the Return of the Jedi creature, the sarlacc, “which lives at the base of a sand pit, consuming people and animals that fall (or are thrown) in”
  • Bambiraptor, a theropod dinosaur discovered in 2000 and named after Disney’s Bambi because of its small size
  • Agathidium vaderi, a slime mold beetle discovered in 2004, and so named because “its head resembles Darth Vader’s helmet”
  • Shrekin, an eriophyid mite discovered in 2007 and named for the cartoon character Shrek “because of the resemblance of the long, laterodorsal scapular tubercules” to Shrek’s “long stalked ears”
  • Tetramorium jedi, an ant discovered in 2012 and named for… well, you get it
  • Yoda, an acorn worm discovered in 2012 and … yeah
The names are often tributes to beloved characters; they are also, however, the collective result of the often Darwinian nature of scientific research. Names that elicit a chuckle are also names that might get your discovery press releases, and write-ups, and a mention on Curious Taxonomy. As David Roy Smith, a scientist at the University of Western Ontario who studies microorganisms, told the journalist Joseph Stromberg: “Mostly, when you publish research about termite gut microbes, you don’t get much interest—even most of the people in the field don’t really give a crap.” A clever name, however, might at least get you a few Bazingas.