David Adamski, Karina Boege, Jean-Francois Landry, Jae-Cheon Sohn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
David Adamski, Karina Boege, Jean-Francois Landry, Jae-Cheon Sohn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

17 Species Named After Star Wars Characters

David Adamski, Karina Boege, Jean-Francois Landry, Jae-Cheon Sohn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
David Adamski, Karina Boege, Jean-Francois Landry, Jae-Cheon Sohn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are Star Wars fans everywhere, including among the scientists who study life on Earth. When these scientists get to name a new species, they often name it after a family member or respected mentor. However, some choose another direction—especially if they're naming a lot of species at once. That’s when the real nerdiness comes out. Here are 17 species whose names were inspired by Star Wars.


A team led by David Adams of the Smithsonian Institution identified two new moth species in western Mexico in 2009. One was named Wockia mexicana and the other Wockia chewbacca. The researchers referred to the Star Wars character Chewbacca as a “very large and hairy Wookiee” in the original paper [PDF]. The oversized, hirsute moths have similar characteristics.


Israel M. Sánchez via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

The fossil remains of an extinct ruminant were discovered last year in Spain. The animal lived about 16 million years ago and had three distinctive horns. It belongs to the palaeomerycidae family, which is believed to include the ancient ancestor of the giraffe. Israel Sánchez of the National Museum of Natural History in Madrid led the team of Spanish and German scientists studying the creature. He said they named the animal Xenokeryx amidalae after the Star Wars character Padmé Amidala because its horns resembled the outlandish hairstyles she wore when she was queen of Naboo.  


Discovered in 2012, Tetramorium jedi is a species of ant native to Madagascar. Entomologists Francisco Hita Garcia and Brian Fisher described dozens of new ant species in the same research paper [PDF], so they apparently turned to many sources to name them.


But T. jedi wasn’t the first ant named for a Star Wars term. In 2003, Fernando Fernández dubbed a Colombian ant Adelomyrmex vaderi, perhaps because, like Vader, it towers over others of its kind, being one of the largest ants in its genus.   


Jason Bond, Auburn University via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Arachnologist Jason Bond of the University of Auburn discovered 33 new species of trapdoor spider in the U.S. and published their names in 2012. He named one after his daughter Elisabeth and others after various celebrities, including Bono, Cesar Chavez, and Barack Obama. And then there is Aptostichus sarlacc, inspired by the slow-digesting monster known as the Sarlacc, which appeared in the film Return of the Jedi. It’s an appropriate name for a trapdoor spider, which catches its prey by luring insects into a web shaped like a pit that resembles the Sarlacc’s mouth.   


The Dark Lord of the Sith lends his name to the Australian mite Darthvaderum greensladeae, named in 1996 by G.S. Hunt. The only member of the genus, the species is also sometimes referred to as Novazelandiella greensladeae.   


Jonathan W. Armbruster via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Jonathan Armbruster of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History named a new species of suckermouth armored catfish last year. Since he thought it bore a "striking resemblance" to the bounty hunter Greedo (who Han Solo shot in the first Star Wars movie), he named it Peckoltia greedoi. The first known specimen was found in 1998 but remained unnamed until last year. Armbruster has been a dedicated Star Wars fan since childhood.  


While studying crabs in Taiwan in 2003, John Markham and Christopher Boyko discovered an isopod parasite that lived in the gills of the crab Albunea groeningi. The researchers said [PDF] they named the parasite Albunione yoda because curved lateral extensions on the female mite's head are reminiscent of Yoda's "long drooping ears." 


Agathidium is a genus of slime-mold beetles. When entomologists Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller named three species of Agathidium for George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld in 2005, it made headlines; but the researchers actually described 62 other species of slime-mold beetles in the same paper. Those included insects called after the entomologists’ wives, historical figures, and fictional characters. Agathidium vaderi was named after Darth Vader because it has “a broad, shiny, helmetlike head.”  


As you've probably noticed by now, entomologists seem to be especially inspired by Darth Vader. Here's another example. Thricops vaderi is a species of housefly named by Jade Savage in 2003 when she published a paper naming six new species of Thricops.


Alexander Riedel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

In a recent article in the journal ZooKeys, a group of scientists described four new species of weevil beetles found in Papua New Guinea. They named one Trigonopterus chewbacca after the Wookiee we all know and love. (Note its bristling body, above.) The researchers wrote, "This species has dense scales on the head and the legs, which reminds the authors of Chewbacca’s dense fur."


Australian postdoctoral student Nate Lo was researching ticks for the University of Milan, in particular pathogens they carry that could affect humans. In 2004, he discovered bacteria that infected tick ovary cells in a way scientists hadn’t seen before: They nestle inside a cell’s mitochondria instead of the cytoplasm. As Lo searched for an appropriate name for the organism, he read about the midi-chlorians of the Star Wars universe (mentioned only in the prequels): intelligent microorganisms that infect humans and, at a certain level, bestow the power of the Force. The bacteria inside the ticks' ovary cells don't seem to be as beneficial, but they don't appear to harm the ticks either. Before publishing, Lo consulted George Lucas and got his permission for the name Midichloria mitochondrii.  


Scientists have used The Force (at least taxonomically speaking) for a long time. In 1983, entomologists Arnold Menke and Charles Vincent described and named three new species of wasp Polemistus vaderi, Polemistus yoda, and Polemistus chewbacca. We shouldn’t be surprised. Menke is the entomologist who named a species of wasp Aha ha in 1977, and another Pison Eu in 1988.


The name Yoda purpurata literally means “purple Yoda.” That’s the name researchers gave in 2012 to a deep-sea acorn worm that has large lips, which its discoverers thought resembled Yoda’s ears. The scientists also discovered two other new species of acorn worms during the same expedition using remotely operated vehicles to observe the sea floor, but the one called Yoda is the one that got all the press.


Apokryltaros via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Han solo trilobite—which died perhaps 470 million years ago—was first described in a paper by Samuel Turvey in 2004. In the published paper, he attributed the genus name to the Han people of China, as that’s where the fossils were found, and the species name solo because it is the only species in the genus. However, Turvey admitted that he was dared to name the species after a Star Wars character. 

DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures

Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

Essential Science
What Is Death?

The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.


For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.


In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."


As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.


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