The rule in science is that if you discover a new species of animal, you get to give it a two-word Latin name using some hard-and-fast conventions in the area of biological taxonomy. First comes the genus (which is always capitalized) followed by the species. Both are required to be italicized. Latin is used for this because it’s a dead language and thus suited as a neutral way of naming things.
These rules can be tracked to a Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist who took over from the biblical Adam to name all the creatures of the earth, everything from viruses to whales
While the genus cannot be changed, the discoverer can come up with whatever they’d like for the species.
Take the recent case of Christina Rheims, a biological scientist in San Paolo, Brazil, who spends a lot of time combing through the Amazon for new species of spiders. She found four in the genus Extraordinarius, which gave her the right to come up with some names that will be applied to these arachnids worldwide for all time.
Christina is a metal fan, so she decided on the following: Extraordinarius brucedickinsoni (named after Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden), Extraordinarius klausmeinei (Klaus Meine of The Scorpions)
Extraordinarius andrematosi (named after Andre Matos of Brazilian heavy metal act Angra), and Extraordinarius rickalleni (honouring one-armed Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen).
This is not the first time musicians have been honoured this way. Take the case of the lowly trilobite, one of the planet’s most successful animals. We think that 570 million years ago, more than 17,000 species of these beetle-like things scuttled through the oceans. That means a lot of fossils need names.
In 1995, two new species of trilobites were found in a fossil dug up in Nunavut. In a cheeky move, the discoverers bestowed the names Aegrotocatellus jaggeri and Perirehaedulus richardsi after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. An honour or just ageism? Not sure.
All five members of the Sex Pistols have their own trilobites: Arcticalyme rotteni, cooki, jonesi, matlocki and even viciousi.
Let’s move on to insects. In 2012, a single female specimen of a previously unknown type of wasp was captured along a nature trail in Thailand. Because it’s very, very blonde in colour, it was named Aleiodes gaga after Lady Gaga.
Metallica has that beat, though. There’s a whole genus of wasp named after them: Metallicaneumon neurospastarchus. The second half of that name translates as “master of puppets,” which describes the nasty way the wasp’s larva deals with the insect in which it feeds.
If you’re a fan of Frank Zappa, chances are you have his 1970 album, Weasels Ripped My Flesh. It’s then appropriate that a small species of ancient mammal from the Miocene era that is the mother of all of today’s weasels is called Vallaris zappai.
The list of musical species goes on forever: The Beatles (a shaggy worm with what looks like a Beatles haircut), Michael Jackson (a hermit grab), Bob Marley (a Caribbean crustacean), Joe Strummer (a snail), Sting (an Amazonian tree frog), Radiohead (an ant), James Brown (a mite), and Henry Rollins (a jellyfish).
There’s also a rule that allows certain international bodies to bestow a less clinical name for something out there. There are untold quadrillions of things in the universe that need names and labels.
The International Astronomical Union is in charge of setting the rules for naming things in space. Stars are almost never named after people, although there are about two dozen exceptions to that rule. That means if you’ve ever fallen for that infomercial that promises to name a star after a loved one with the help of the International Star Registry, you’ve been taken. It has no standing with scientists.
But asteroids are fair game. If you discover a new one of those, you get to name it — pending approval from the International Astronomical Union, of course.
There’s a rock out near the orbit of Mars known as 8749 Beatles. All four members also have their own individual asteroids named after them, which is a rarity. I only know of two other bands who have been honoured thus: Rush (19155 Lifeson, 12262 Geddylee, and 23469 Neilpeart) and The Bee Gees.
Eric Clapton, Brian Wilson, ZZ Top, Yes, Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen and even Rammstein all have interplanetary rocks named after them.
The International Astronomical Union also has rules for things like craters and mountain ranges on the moon and the planets. If we look at the moon, the general rule is that craters are named after deceased scientists, explorers, and artists. Michael Jackson is up there with a 1,200-acre crater in the Lake of Dreams.
The rule for Mars is similar, although Paul Stanley of KISS — who is not dead — seems to have a crater named after him.
Which musician the record for the most celestial bodies/features bearing their name? John Lennon. He’s got his asteroid, a crater on the moon not too far from Michael Jackson, and a crater on Mercury. Those names will last until the Sun expands into a red giant an incinerates us all.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.