9 Famous Women Who Have Creatures Named After Them
I've decided how I want to be immortalized. Who cares about publishing a book? I want something really peculiar in the natural world to be named in my honor. (Preferably it should have 18 legs and a variety of heads, but I'll settle for some kind of ornate beetle.) People have been naming new discoveries in science for celebrities for centuries; you're basically nobody unless you've got a species or two to your name. (One woman on this list has an entire genus, another a gigantic fossilized mammal.) And you'd be surprised at the reasonings: an alleged resemblance, some kind of weird coincidence about habitat or shape, pure rampant flattery, or absolutely no clear reason at all.
When it comes to women and recognition, frankly the state of things is a little paltry. Compared to hordes of species named after prominent dudes (Mick Jagger's got several, as do Dante, Goethe, William Shakespeare and Confucius), the lauded women who've had their names put up in lights over a case in the world's natural history museums is much thinner. Which means we should all reorganize our priorities and aim strictly for fame via ornithological/insect/fossil names. You can bet Kim and Kanye are already on it.
Here are nine strange creatures named for amazing women. Let them inspire you to go harass your local scientist researcher for a dedication.
1. Angelina Jolie's Spider
In 2008, a scientist from Alabama's Auburn University named a new species of trapdoor spider discovered in California Aptostichus angelinajolieae after the Oscar-winning actress. But the naming wasn't actually a pun on black widows or anything vaguely sexist (unlike other things on this list). It was, according to the scientist, designed to be an act of recognition of Jolie's work for the UN and refugee rights. The trapdoor spider species, in case you're wondering, got its name from its propensity to catch prey by lurking in burrows and then jumping out at it.
2. Amy Tan's Leech
This one caused such a kerfuffle that the novelist Amy Tan (you'll remember her for The Joy Luck Club) actually gave an interview to Science News this week about her true feelings regarding her name being attached to a leech species. The news only emerged in January, when a terrestrial leech discovered in Australia was named Chtonobdella tanae in her honor.
It turns out that Tan isn't a random selection: the researchers responsible for the discovery and naming said in their wide press release, “Amy, long a supporter of the work we do here, is someone we knew would consider it an honor, not an insult, to have a leech named for her. These jungle leeches are mentioned several times in her hilarious novel Saving Fish from Drowning.” And Tan has declared herself "thrilled".
3. Sacagawea's Scorpionfly
The explorer Sacagawea is a firm part of American history, most famous for being the sole woman and Native American interpreter on the exploratory expedition undertaken by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s — despite being pregnant and then carrying the newborn child with her. It's unsurprising that she's been paid homage in biology too, though the particular animal named after her is an unusual choice: a species of scorpionfly. Brachypanorpa sacajawea was first discovered in 1990, in the Rocky Mountains of the northern U.S., particularly in Idaho, where Sacagawea herself was born.
4. Georgia O'Keeffe's Archosaur
You may be surprised to know that despite her tendency to paint flowers and rock ranges, O'Keeffe's namesake is neither. It's actually the now-extinct archosaur, effigia okeeffea, so-named because it was found in Ghost Ranch Quarry in New Mexico, where O'Keeffe famously spent many years. (You may also remember that Stephen Colbert jokingly commented, after the naming was announced in January 2006, that it should have been named after the discoverer, also named Colbert, because O'Keeffe's paintings scared him.)
5. Queen Victoria's Waterlily
Queen Victoria of England presided over the English Empire at its height, and was one of the most influential rulers in modern history. When it came to flattering her using natural history, she got something that acknowledged just how far her countrymen were exploring: a giant waterlily found in the Amazon. The Victoria amazonica is massive, can support small children on its pads when full-grown, and was discovered in Bolivia in 1801. The world's largest lily, impressive, and beautiful (it has gigantic white flowers): just the right thing to impress a Queen, probably.
6. Lady Gaga's Genus Of Fern
Lady Gaga's actually had a few things named after her (look, scientists listen to pop music as much as anybody else), but the best one has to be an entire genus of fern. It contains 19 different species, all with Gaga at the helm. The Gaga name came from a variety of things, according to the scientists in charge: a deep love of Gaga's music among the research team, the fact that the DNA sequence of the fern genus looks a lot like G A G A, and the fact that the ferns are actually fairly sexually fluid and can self-fertilize. Plus, apparently Gaga's outfit at the 2012 Grammy Awards bore a strong resemblance to the fern's gametophyte. The Gaga ferns aren't new discoveries; the scientific kicker that led to them being given a new rockstar name was the discovery that they're all related under the same genus.
7. Greta Garbo's Wasp
The problem with namings is that they can imply qualities the scientists perhaps didn't quite intend. For instance, naming a wasp after Greta Garbo (as happened in 1990, with the Australian species Rostropria garbo ), doesn't exactly imply good things about Garbo's character. Hilariously, this appears to be because of Garbo's famous "I wish to be alone" line in Grand Hotel, which became her trademark. The wasp's female is described as "solitary".
8. Sappho's Red-Tailed Comet
What Sappho has to do with a gorgeous hummingbird found primarily in Bolivia is anybody's guess, but the beautiful red-tailed comet, Sappho sparganurus, is certainly a prime specimen, with green and golden-red plumage. It appears to have been named in the 1800s, but it's unclear what prompted the tie between an Andean hummingbird and the famous Sapphic poet of the island of Lesbos, except perhaps that the ornithologist was a classicist who felt a bit homesick.
9. Beyonce's Horse Fly
Long before she got anybody into Formation, Beyonce was being immortalized by a fly with a golden behind. No, really. An Australian fly with a dense collection of golden hairs on its rear end prompted the naming Scaptia beyonceae in 2012. It was also first collected in northern Queensland, a remote part of Australia, in 1981, when the singer was born; but it's unclear what Beyonce herself thought about the honor of being written down in natural history as a glowing fly-behind, as she never commented on it.