Single Ladies and Species Discovery
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 16, 2012
One of my frustrations in writing The Species Seekers was the shortage of women in the early history of biological discovery. Mary Kingsley was clearly wonderful, but once is never enough. So this morning I was delighted to come across two stories of occasionally cross-dressing women and the discovery of new species.
This is surely the first time this blog has picked up an item from the Australian website CelebrityFix, but in a good cause:
Australian scientists have named a species of horse fly after Beyoncé, because its ‘spectacular gold colour’ makes it the “all time diva of flies.”
The scientist responsible for the fly’s superstar name, officially Scaptica (Plinthina) beyonceae, has explained the similarities between the insect and the singer in a CSIRO media release.
“It was the unique dense golden hairs on the fly’s abdomen that led me to name this fly in honour of the performer Beyoncé as well as giving me the chance to demonstrate the fun side of taxonomy – the naming of species,” said Australian National Insect Collection researcher, Bryan Lessard.
We’re hearing ‘gold’ (hotpants), (luscious)’hair’, (toned) ‘abdomen’, strange(ly attractive) species…yep, sounds like Beyonce to us!
Mr. Lessard also said that while the horse fly is “often considered a pest” they are “extremely important pollinators of plants” and “act like hummingbirds during the day, drinking nectar from their favourite varieties of grevillea, tea trees and eucalypts.”
Amazingly, the rare Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae was collected in 1981 — the same year Beyoncé was born! Although, it was found in north-east Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, not in the arms of Mathew and Tina Knowles in Houston, Texas.
Amazingly, Beyonce isn’t the first star to get a creepy crawly named after her. Check out our totally educational gallery of organisms named after celebrities…
And from a more familiar source, Cynthia Graber at 60 Second Science, here’s a story about a female species seekers finally receiving her small share of recognition:
Jeanne Baret was passionate about science. So passionate that, in the 1760s, the Frenchwoman disguised herself as a man. She hid her true identity to accompany her lover, botanist Philibert Commerson, on the first French ship to sail around the world. At the time, women weren’t allowed on French navy vessels, and general sexism prevented them from working in science.
Commerson was sick for part of the trip, and so Baret accomplished much of the fieldwork on her own. Together the two collected more than 6000 specimens. More than 70 species have been named for Commerson. He intended to name a species after Baret, but he died before he could do so.
Then last year, University of Utah biologist Eric Tepe heard an interview with Baret biographer Glynis Ridley on NPR. The story inspired Tepe to name a species of vine from South America in her honor: Solanum baretiae. Its leaves are of variable shape, as were the leaves of the species Commerson had intended to name for Baret. S. baretiae’s flowers are violet, yellow or white. An exotic species for an unusual woman, who made a mark on science without leaving her name. Until now.
Here’s more on Baret from Scientific American.