Would naming an endangered spider after Margot Robbie, star of the hit Barbie movie, help inspire people to save the arachnid?
Maybe so, suggests new research.
While it might be nice if decisions about which endangered species need the most help came down to factors with scientific merit, that’s not always the case. Things related to how a species make humans feel can have an outsized role in how much attention we pay. Among other variables: Is it photogenic, furry, colorful or a big predator?
It turns out, an organism’s proximity to celebrity might also make a difference, particularly for less cuddly or charismatic critters such as insects. A clever bit of sleuthing by some United Kingdom scientists suggests that naming an organism after a famous person will bring more attention. That’s particularly true for invertebrates which, let’s admit it, are more likely to star in a horror movie than one about Barbie.
Naming a newly-discovered organism after a celebrity has a long history, one that is at turns funny, weird and deeply troubling. The Swedish pop group Abba has an entire genus of orb-weaving spiders named after them (including Abba transversa). Former presidents Barack Obama (ant Zasphinctus obamai) and Donald Trump (worm-like amphibian Demorphis donaldtrumpi) get their own species. Lady Gaga is apparently a hit among scientists, with an entire genus of 19 ferns bearing her name as well as a group of prehistoric mammals.
Then there are the monikers tied to people with pasts that range from ugly to downright evil. Perhaps the best example is the small cave-dwelling beetle Anophthalmus hitleri, named in the 1930s by a fan of the Nazi leader Adolph Hitler. That species is part of a broader debate among scientists over whether to revise names to match Indigenous terms, remove ones for reviled figures or stop naming them after people altogether.
But Katie Blake, a psychologist studying for her PhD at Oxford University, and her colleagues had a question about the power of a name. Can a bit of celebrity rub off on the non-human species?
The scientists took a crack at answering this by turning where so many of us do for answers to trivia and other facts: Wikipedia. First, they collected a list of all the species known to have names associated with them, with a focus on names identified as famous, such as this list (from Wikipedia, of course). All told, they compiled 653 mammals, 1,007 reptiles, 607 amphibians, 1,021 birds, 452 invertebrates and 159 fish.
They settled on a definition of a celebrity as someone with a Wikipedia page that receives at least one visit per day. To test the power of different levels of celebrity, they also classified the species tied to celebrities whose Wikipedia pages got 10, 100 and 1,000 visits per day.
To gauge the potential power of fame, they compared the number of visits to the Wikipedia pages of species with celebrity ties to similar species with more run-of-the-mill scientific names (but also their own Wikipedia pages).
The results revealed that human celebrity does, in some cases, appear to translate to non-human celebrity. Overall, species with these unusual names were nearly 1.1 times more likely to have a Wikipedia visitor than their less famous relative. the researchers reported Sept. 12 in Conservation Biology.
The top-ranking celebrity creatures were, by and large, the usual suspects – animals with some characteristic that humans find fascinating. At the top was Baran’s viper at more than 4,000 Wikiepedia visits per day. I struggled to find which Baran this is named after, suggesting that perhaps celebrity had little to do with this animal’s notoriety. Second came the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii. Its fame probably has more connection to the Looney Tunes cartoon character than with George Harris, the 19th century naturalist who first published a description of the Australian mammal. But I guess you could call that a form of pop culture celebrity.
It’s the overlooked species, such as insects, for whom these results are most intriguing. Invertebrates saw the biggest bump of all, with 1.72 times more visits when their celebrity namesake averaged at least 100 page views per day. That rose to nearly 3 times more visits for those with the biggest celebrities.
This might seem like just a curious bit of cultural trivia. But could it be something more? Blake is interested in how human psychology can be harnessed to encourage conservation. She is studying ways to basically sell conservation-oriented thinking to people, for instance, through video games.
Her advice to someone who wants to name a new species? Seek input from people who live where the organism is found and avoid naming it after a controversial figure. “Personally I think that eponyms should be inspired by someone who has clearly brought about some positive change – ideally for environmental causes,” she said
Whether this celebrity effect resonates beyond Wikipedia traffic is beyond the reach of this new paper. It’s possible that additional public attention might make people more open to messages about the need to protect a species. But fame can cut both ways, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you. That beetle named after Hitler? It’s in danger of extinction because neo-Nazi fetishists want to add it to their collections.
Blake, et. al. “Impact on species’ online attention when named after celebrities.” Conservation Biology. Sept. 12, 2023.
Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine