Biologists Really Can’t Help Naming Species After Obama
Getting to name things has always been one of the top perks of being a scientist—stars, planets, research vessels. And for as long as biologists have used the Linnaean system of binomian nomeclature, they’ve opted to honor presidents by naming plants and animals after them. Thomas Jefferson has an extinct scallop, Teddy has an elk and a savanna shrew. Bush (W), Cheney and Rumsfeld each got a slime-mold beetle apiece. But no president in history has left his mark on the natural world quite like Obama. Here’s the menagerie he’ll leave as part of his legacy:
All the President’s Fish
Teleogramma obamaorum Congo River Cichlid
It took a huge drought and historically low water levels to reveal the hiding place of Teleogramma obamaorum, a 3 inch-long, dusky grey fish with a prominent jaw and a paddle-shaped tail fin. It was the summer of 2011 and icthyologist Melanie Stiassny was taking advantage of the large fields of rock rubble exposed for the first time in the main channel of the lower Congo River. “That year was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she says. “There was a whole community of fishes living deep in the river among these normally hidden rocks.” Genetic work a few years later confirmed the fish was indeed a new species, one of between 200 and 300 new fish species discovered every year. Stiassny and her team decided to name the cichlid after the Obamas (obamaorum indicates the genitive plural) because of their commitment to science education and environmental conservation in Africa and their immense popularity in the Congo. There, images of the POTUS and FLOTUS are prominently displayed on everything from people’s homes to plastic shopping bags. Why not a fish?
Etheostoma obama Spangled Darter
On March 28, 1992, Stephen Layman and Richard Mayden netted a slim fish striped with brilliant blue and dotted with splashes of tangerine across its body and dorsal fin. A Spangled darter, caught about 200m upstream from where Cuba Landing Road crosses the Buffalo River in Humphreys County, TN. Others had been caught before, but it was Layman and Mayden who presented evidence in 2012 that this population was distinguishable as its own species (bringing the total to more than 200 darters so far discovered). Most of them live in the rivers and creeks of northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee. The biologists chose to name the fish after our 44th president because of “his environmental leadership, particularly in the areas of clean energy and environmental protection.” All rise for the Star Spangled Darter.
Tosanoides n.sp. Deepwater Reef Fish
While the naming won’t be formalized until later this year, a reef fish with a curious spot on its dorsal fin is the latest animal to honor the president with some still-to-be-locked-in Latinification. Zoologist Richard Pryle was diving off Hawaii’s Kure Atoll in June when he saw a fish he didn’t recognize (he knows all the fish in those parts). He collected a specimen and showed it to the researchers onboard his NOAA research vessel: They all agreed it was a new species. And Pryle thought the fin spot looked a lot like Obama’s 2008 campaign logo. “What makes this species unique is that it is currently the only known fish that is endemic to the Monument itself,” says Pryle. “Such a special fish should honor a very bold and important action by the President to protect the place where it lives.” In August, Obama (a Hawaii native) expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to nearly 600,000 square miles. Create the world’s largest marine protected area? Yes we can!
Paragordius obamai African Hairworm
It was Truman who first referred to the presidency as the “loneliest job in the world.” Also lonely: Paragordius obamai, the first and only known species of freshwater Gordian worms that can reproduce without a partner. The researchers say the parasite was named for the sitting POTUS because it was found a few miles away from the town in Kenya where Obama’s paternal step-grandmother currently resides.
Baracktrema obamai Turtle Blood Fluke
The word “politics” has some apocryphal etymology: ‘poly,’ meaning ‘many,’ plus ‘ticks,’ meaning ‘blood sucking parasites.’ Earlier this year, researchers went one step further, naming a species of parasitic blood fluke after our politician in chief. Baracktrema obamai infects the lungs of black marsh and southeast Asian box turtles. The journal article’s co-author and Obama’s fifth cousin, Thomas R. Platt, chose the name. And no, he and Barack don’t have bad blood. It’s just that the parasite reminds him of the president, he told the Associated Press: “It’s long. It’s thin. And it’s cool as hell.”
Aptostichus barackobamai Trapdoor Spider
Biologist Jason Bond discovered Aptostichus barackobamai while digging through a museum collection. Gathered from an area near Hopland, California in 1973, the bristly brown arachnid sat on a shelf in the American Museum of Natural History for more than a quarter of a century before he found it. Like all trapdoor spiders, it constructs long underground burrows, hidden by a hinged door made of silk. But the males also have a unique set of spines on its first set of walking legs that form a mating clasper—which they use to hang onto females during sexytimes. No biological parallels here, thankfully—Bond just likes the guy. “I felt like the President has been a true statesman in the face of ridiculous opposition,” he says. Bond is hoping to also bestow the honor on Hillary come November, with a new species he’s working on.
Best of the Rest
Obamadon gracilis Toothy Prehistoric Lizard
“Obamadon,” Latin for Obama’s teeth, and “gracillis,” meaning slender, is perhaps the most directly complimentary name job of all the President’s fauna. And with good reason. The man’s got a great set of gnashers. Nick Longrich is the paleontologist who discovered the new species—a small lizard first found in Eastern Montana in 1974 but wrongly classified until 2013. “The lizard has these very tall, straight teeth, and Obama has these tall, straight incisors,” Longrich told Reuters. But he waited until after the election to announce the name in case Obama took offense to being named after a somewhat puny extinct reptile. Don’t want a kick a guy when he’s down, you know?
Nystalus obamai Western Striolated Puffbird
In July 2008, Bret Whitney was sitting deep in the Brazilian rainforest just east of the Madeira River, the Amazon’s largest and most important tributary, when he caught the notes of a bird song he’d never heard before. He recorded it, and eventually tracked down and caught the bird that had made it—a large-headed canopy-dweller with heavily streaked breast plumage. Whitney went back in 2011 to collect more of the birds and run DNA analyses to confirm that it was a new species. His team decided to honor Obama with the bird’s scientific name because of his global influence on the development green technologies. “He is a fair-minded, resolute and visionary humanitarian,” says Whitney. “The mainstream use of solar power around the world will benefit all, including the flora, fauna and people of Amazonia.”
Caloplaca obamae Firedot Lichen
All hail the President and First Fungus, the first organism to be named after Obama. Discovered in 2007 on the northern side of Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California, the lichen barely survived the island’s long history of intensive cattle grazing. Kerry Knudsen, a retired construction worker and renowned lichen expert at the University of California Riverside’s Herbarium, made the discovery during the final suspenseful weeks of Obama’s first presidential run. The historic moment left an impression on him, and he completed the final draft of his paper on the day of Obama’s inauguration. Published in March of 2009, Knudsen thanked the new President for “his support of science and scientific education.”
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