Female sci-fi heroes and the names of new beetles6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Have you ever wondered how scientists decide what to name a new plant species or a new insect species?
A few hundred years ago, Carl Linnaeus, came up with a way of classifying and naming different organisms so he could keep track of them. This naming came to be called binomial nomenclature (binomial, as in two names). Since then, scientists have relied on this way of naming to be able to speak with each other about distinct species of organisms.
The Rohit Experiment
To understand this system better, think of how we name humans. There might be two Rohits in your class, one that’s tall and one that’s short. You can distinguish them by calling them short Rohit and tall Rohit, but what if a new student joined your school who was also named Rohit? How would you tell three Rohits apart?
Aren’t you glad we have last names now? We could simply use the last names of each boy to figure out which person belongs to each name. This way you’d know that tall Rohit is Rohit Varma, short Rohit is Rohit Sharma and funny Rohit is Rohit Kumar. Now you know exactly which person belongs to each name!
That’s exactly what binomial nomenclature helps scientists with. So even though two scientists from different parts of the world may not speak the same language, when they meet up to chat over a cup of tea, they can talk about their Canis familiaris — which is the scientific name for dogs — and know exactly what the other is referring to!
This naming is a whole job by itself and is called Taxonomy. Taxonomists are scientists who use an international standard of rules to classify into categories and name newly-discovered species of any living organisms. They study the newly discovered species to observe their behaviour, living and eating habits and determine if they are different from species that have already been discovered and named.
Two such taxonomists, Sarah Smith and Anthony Cognato have been studying some species of beetles in South and Central America and believe that they might have just stumbled across new and undiscovered spcies! And what’s more, these scientists, from Michigan State University in the US, have found that they are comprised mostly of female beetles.
So when the time came to name them, the scientists started to think hard about finding the right match. Not only were these species of beetles mostly female, but they were also strong, hardy and could withstand relocations and habitat disruptions. They could also travel vast distances on pieces of wood and end up making a home wherever they landed. Smith and Cognato believe that the beetles first came to existence in Southeast Asia and over 20 million years have ended up settling in the tropics of South America.
For this very reason, the taxonomists decided to name each of these new beetle species after famous women from science fiction! They named one after Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games and called it Coptoborus Katniss, because the shape of the beetle’s body looked tapered like Katniss’s bow!
You might also recognize the name of this next beetle, named after Nyota Uhura, the Communications officer aboard Captain Kirk’s Starship Enterprise in the famous TV series and movie franchise, Star Trek. The scientists thought the vivid red colors of this beetle matched the uniform worn by the character.
Some others are Coptoborus scully, named after Dana Scully, the female detective on the X-Files tv show and Coptoborus starbuck, named after one of my favorite female characters in a sci fi show – Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, a badbass pilot from the series, Battlestar Galactica.
A welcome change
One of the best things about these scientists naming a predominantly female beetle species after famous women, is that it is about time! Did you know that male scientists in the past would often name things after themselves? Or name species after other famous men? There is a species of lichen named after Barack Obama and a species of slime-mold beetles named after Darth Vader, but only in the last decade have scientists started to name new species after women.
It’s very encouraging to see the scientist community now name new organisms or species after famous female figures. Women are beginning to leave a mark on what has traditionally been a male-dominated world and doing so makes room for more young girls to enter the world of science and continue to make important discoveries for the rest of the world!
(The Sci-Borg is a bi-monthly column on science fiction and fantasy)
Author’s Note: Aishwarya has lived in books since she was an eight-year-old pretending to be Nancy Drew. She suffered a great disappointment when told that Hogwarts didn’t send her any letters at age 11, the backs of wardrobes lead to nowhere (no matter how long she sat inside one) and that it is impossible to speak to animals (although she thinks her dogs come closer to human speech with every passing day).