February 14, 2006

The fujigmotic chigger of scholarship

The Feb. 11 Economist has a story about taxonomic marketing, leading with the fact that a Canadian online casino made the winning bid of $650,000 in an internet auction for the name of a newly-discovered Bolivian monkey. (Which therefore became Callicebus aureipalatii, or the Golden Palace titi. The wikipedia entry calls it the "GoldenPalace.com Monkey", but I don't see any .com in aureipalatii. And titi is too nice a common name to pass over in favor of monkey, it seems to me.)

The Economist would like to suggest that the Bolivians who sold off naming rights to their discovery were on to something. ... Notwithstanding recent discoveries in New Guinea ... few biologists these days have flashy mammals and birds to hawk around. But a little imagination might find sponsors for lesser creatures. For, while a wealthy airline (if any still exist) might aspire to a Papuan bird of paradise, its low-cost confrere could consider something a bit more within its budget—a butterfly, perhaps? And which building society would not be seriously tempted by its own bee?

Dismissing concerns that this would be somehow infra dig, the writer observes that

Last year, for example, America's president, vice president and defence secretary each got a beetle (Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi, A. rumsfeldi) courtesy of two Republican coleopterists. Admittedly, the beetles in question eat slime mould, which caused a few titters among taxonomists of a Democrat persuasion, but it is clearly an act of gross speciesism to criticise the dining habits of other organisms, so the titters were sotto voce. And it is not only politicians who are benefiting. Sting, a musician, has his own tree frog (Hyla stingi), and several spiders also bear the names of entertainers (Calponia harrisonfordi, Pachygnatha zappa) who clearly have taxonomists as fans.

The best fun is saved for the end:

Detractors of such horrid commercialisation there will no doubt be. But they might consider that taxonomists have been amusing themselves quietly for years, as names such as Colon rectum (a beetle), Ba humbugi (a snail), Oedipus complex (a salamander) and Ytu brutus (a beetle) attest. Besides, how much disrepute could commerce really bring to the discipline that brought the world Trombicula fujigmo, a mite whose name is an acronym for “fuck you Jack, I got my orders.”

I wonder if this means that The Economist can no longer be sold at Walmart?

Anyhow, Trombicula may be mites, but their larvae are chiggers, so this is potentially serious stuff. However, I'm having a little trouble verifying this excellent story. Trombicula fujigmo figures in a list of "Funny or Curious Zoological Names" attributed to "Arnold S. Menke ... with additions by Neal L. Evenhuis", and reprinted here, on a site otherwise devoted to "Research on Chalcidoid Systematics". However, the citation for the list says that it has been "Reprinted from BOGUS Volumino Negatori Doso, pages 24-27. (April Fool's Day 1993)", which is not a citation to inspire confidence.

There are three Trombicula species in the list, as follows:

Trombicula doremi Brennan and Beck, 1955 (musical chigger number one)
Trombicula fasolla Brennan and Beck, 1955 (musical chigger number two)
Trombicula fujigmo Philip and Tucker, 1950 (another chigger--ask any WWII U.S. veteran what "fujigmo" stands for)

Google Scholar can't yet find a paper indexed by the terms {Philip Tucker Trombicula}, but of course 1950 was quite a while ago.

[Update: Blake Stacey writes

A notable entry in this genre is, of course, Strigiphilus garylarsoni, a species of biting louse found only on owls. According to The Prehistory of the Far Side, S. garylarsoni was named for the well-known cartoonist by Dale H. Clayton, head of U Chicago's evolutionary biology committee.

And, naturally, it has its own Wikipedia article:


Gary Larson fans may be surprised to find him put into the same genre as an on-line casino and an impolite WWII acronym, but such is fame, I guess.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 14, 2006 04:42 PM