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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Taking a Lichen to President Obama

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 20, 2009

The White House hasn’t commented so far on the announcement of a new species named in his honor, Caloplaca obamae.  But here’s a little background on the strange business of scientific naming from my new book, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time, due out from W.W. Norton on May 4:

Having a new species named after you is of course a great honor; scientists often characterize it as a form of immortality.  But even among biological types, it can also be an occasion for dread.  Entomologist May Berenbaum became apprehensive, for instance, after she discovered a new species and passed it on to an expert for classification and naming.  “The last thing I need,” Berenbaum fretted, “is for a beetle whose distinguishing feature is a proboscis fully half the length of its body to be known as Berenbaum’s weevil.”

So by the same token, would President Obama want the first species named after him to be what the Los Angeles Times is describing as “a tough, orange colored lichen”?

It is arguably a step up from what happened to his predecessor in the White House.

… the gazelles, mountain lions, and other animals people might dream about having for namesakes mostly got handed out long ago.  New species nowadays tend to be invertebrates.  That means you can still get your name put up in scientific lights, but most likely with the help of strange, small creatures that the unenlightened public regards as vermin. Back in the day, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had an elk subspecies named after him, Cervus elaphus roosevelti. More recently, President George W. Bush was lucky to attain scientific immortality on the back of a slime mold beetle, Agathidium bushi.

The lichen discovery comes from Kerry Knudsen at the University of California at Riverside. Here’s the citation:  K. Knudsen (2009) “Caloplaca obamae, a new species from Santa Rosa Island, California.”  Opuscula Philolichenum 6: 37-40

P.S.  Oh, and here’s a little background from the book I am currently writing:  The only president to name a new species himself was Thomas Jefferson.  In 1797, while still serving as vice president, he described a species based on a huge claw recovered from a cave in West Virginia.  Jefferson, who was obsessed with the idea of big creatures in the American wilderness, thought it was a kind of lion three times larger than its African counterpart.  He gave it the genus name Megalonyx.  Unfortunately, it later turned out to be a giant ground sloth.  But it was at least a new species, and a French anatomist graciously named it jeffersoni after the president.

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