5 Perks of Being a Taxonomer

Thousands upon thousands of new species are discovered and described every single year. For the scientists who discover and describe them, each new species offers an opportunity for paying tribute to loved ones and heroes, for terrible puns, and—occasionally—for revenge.

1. You Can Name a Species After Someone You Admire …

Scientists name new species after colleagues, loved ones, and all kinds of celebrities. There’s a khaki-striped tree snail (Crikey steveirwini) named after “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and a fly with a golden booty (Scaptia beyonceae) named after Beyoncé. The parasitic wasp named after Shakira (Aleiodes shakirae) makes its host caterpillars wiggle like belly dancers. A prehistoric sea creature with scissor-like claws (Kooteninchela deppi) was named by a researcher with a fondness for Johnny Depp.

Lady Gaga’s got an entire genus of ferns, including Gaga monstraparva, or “Gaga’s little monster,” which is what she calls her fans. Scientists were inspired by the ferns’ gametophyte stage, which resembles one of the pop star’s flamboyant costumes. "We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression," researcher Kathleen Pryer told DukeToday.

2. … Or Someone You Hate.

Eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus was a pioneer of both taxonomy and fancy name-calling. He pulled no punches when christening new species, including the foul-smelling Siegesbeckia weeds, named for Linnaeus hater Johann Georg Siegesbeck.

Then there were Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg, the feuding paleontologists. In 1925, Warburg named a trilobite fossil Isbergia planifrons, or “Isberg’s flat forehead,” which is apparently Scandinavian for “Isberg is dumb.” Nine years later, Isberg struck back with Warburgia crassa, or “Warburg’s fat.” Burn.

These days, there are rules. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature prohibits species names using “intemperate language” or those “likely to give offense.”

Some species names walk the line. Researchers swore they meant it as a compliment when, in 2005, they named three species of slime mold beetles after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. A similar claim was made in the 1930s by the German entomologist who named an eyeless, predatory cave beetle after Adolf Hitler.

3. Terrible Puns and Silly Names Are Allowed.

When scientists discovered deep-sea crabs with hairy chests, their first thoughts were of David Hasselhoff, and the Hoff crab was born. Just this year, biologists introduced us to the very fine peacock spiders known as Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus.

But the hijinks are not limited to common names. Latin names get in on the fun, too. There’s the spider Apopyllus now and the beetle with long mandibles known as Strategus longichomperus. There are the fly species Pieza kake, Pieza pi, and Pieza rhea. There’s the sea snail Ittibittium, which is, naturally, smaller than its cousins in the genus Bittium. There’s an entire genus of snails called Turbo.

And then there are the butts—so many butts. There’s Colon rectum (a beetle), Arses (a bird), and Enema pan (another beetle). There’s a snail named Natica josephine, which sounds fine to American ears but can apparently translate to “The Pope’s butt.” Science!

4. You Give the Best Wedding Gifts.

When everybody else is buying toasters and hand towels, a beetle can really stand out. In an article in The Coleopterist’s Bulletin introducing the genus Parkerola, the authors explained:

This new genus is dedicated to the authors’ friends, Heidi and Joseph Parker, on the occasion of their marriage … In early 2015, Joe and Heidi became parents of Jonah Wallace Parker.

Mr. and Mrs. Parker are themselves evolutionary biologists, and were likely pleased as punch at the gift.

Marine biologist Greg Rouse named a sea worm after his girlfriend. “She really liked it,” he said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

So what about the rest of us, who probably won’t be discovering new species any time soon? Well, there’s hope—for the wealthy, anyway. If you have a lot of money—like, a lot—you don’t even have to discover a species before you can name it. You can just buy the rights. Research institutions have auctioned off naming rights for bats, sea slugs, spiders, frogs, and turtles. In 2005, an online casino shelled out $65,000 to name the monkey (Callicebus aureipalatii). For real.

5. There’s Also, You Know, Being the First to Describe a Species.

Renown is great and all, but discovery is its own reward. And curiosity isn’t just for professionals in lab coats. With the advent of social media and mobile apps, citizen scientists are discovering and sharing cool things every day.

Whether drab or outrageous, cute or truck-faced, every single species we encounter is another reason to protect our weird-ass planet. We could go on exploring for all of human existence and never reach the end of the treasures this world is hiding. Hamlet was a whiner, but on this count, he was right: there is way more weird crap in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.*

*Slightly paraphrased.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]


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