Having something named after you is usually a compliment, particularly when it’s a brand new species. But does that still hold true if that species is actually a parasite? President Barack Obama now has the distinction of having two such creatures named after him. The newly named Baracktrema obamai is the second parasite named for the 44th president, according to the Associated Press, following a parasitic hairworm found in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya in 2012.
Discovered by biologist Thomas Platt last year, B. obamai is a blood fluke, a tiny flatworm that resides in the blood vessels of the lungs of its hosts, Malaysian freshwater turtles. Its presence can cause at best mild inflammation and at worst paralysis or death.
While naming a creature with the ability to kill innocent turtles after a sitting president might sound like the pinnacle of political passive-aggression, taxonomists say that having an organism named after you is actually quite a compliment. Famed naturalist David Attenborough, who had quite a few species named after him, once said that having a biologist name a new discovery after you is the “biggest of compliments that you could ask from any scientific community.”
In a delightful piece in Slate, Rachel E. Gross explained the official rules for species-naming:
All proposed names must meet standards set by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Zoologists apply the code “to avoid the chaos that would result if the naming of animals was not regulated,” according to the code’s FAQ. “Ordinary languages grow spontaneously in innumerable directions, but biological nomenclature has to be an exact tool that will convey a precise meaning for persons in all generations,” states the preface to the code’s first edition, from 1961.
Fortunately, within those rules, there is a lot of wiggle room. Like haiku, naming species is the art of restriction. For instance, according to the code, “No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.”
That may be true, but it’s tough to consider the naming of slime-mold beetles after former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld an act of praise. The AP story also included the anecdote about a biologist naming another parasite species group “microphallus” … after her ex-husband.
But apparently this offering to Obama was done with good intentions, Platt told the Associated Press. B. obamai brings the total of organisms named after the president up to seven. Of course he’s still surpassed by Attenborough and Charles Darwin (perhaps unsurprisingly, there are hundreds of species named after him). Even Lady Gaga has a whooping 19 species of fern named after her.
In addition to the two parasites, Obama has loaned his name to a fish from Tennessee, an apparent appreciation of his commitment to conservation; an extinct lizard, for his impeccable teeth; and a bird and a trapdoor spider, both for no discernable reason. He’s also lent his name to a Californian lichen, named way back in 2008, “for the president's support of science and science education.”
Obama does love science, and scientists certainly love him. As a member of the scientific community, I understand that we aren’t always the most creative bunch (three different wasps after Ralph Waldo Emerson? Really?). But how about finding a fish to name after Michael Phelps? A songbird named after Frank Ocean? Some kind of fantastic beast named after J.K. Rowling? And seriously, there should be way more than just a horsefly named after Beyoncé, even if it does have a golden abdomen.