What’s in a name?

Australian readers will probably have heard about the travesty that is iSnack 2.0, the name chosen by voters as the name for the new variety of Vegemite (it’s the traditional yeast extract mixed with cream cheese). But names fascinate me all the more when applied to living creatures, and it seems we’re in need of some.

Australia has a dearth of taxonomists – scientists whose job is to classify, catalogue and – in conjunction with the biologists and botanists who discover them – name new species. The problem of not having enough taxonomists for the job is never more present than when we see evidence of the back-log of un-named Australian species, and in the news at the moment are hundreds of underground species from central Australia, about half going unnamed.

News.com.au invited readers to come up with names, and predictably “iBug 2.0” was an early comment. Work colleague Robert came up with the better “iBlindFish”, though it sounds rather violent.

It’s unlikely the public will really be asked to name these creatures, and in any case, those are only common names – important, but less so than the binomial names required by science. But just such a name was offered up to the public by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, when they put the rights to choose the scientific name of a newly discovered species Lebbeus shrimp on eBay back in March. (All proceeds to the conservationists, of course, though how we’re supposed to know what we’re conserving without decent funding for taxonomy I’ve no idea.)

Discovered just off the southern coast of Western Australia by Anna McCallum, a graduate student at my old stomping grounds the University of Melbourne, the shrimp – of the genus Lebbeus – looks pretty impressive with it’s yellow and green carapace dotted with red spots. In addition to the naming rights, the winner of the auction got to take home a framed portrait of the little bugger by “freelance botanical, scientific and natural history artist” Mali Moir. The story was picked up by a stack of marine blogs – everything from conservationists to aquarium enthusiasts – and the comments on Stony Reef’s article indicate the bidding got up to $3,550 before the end.

I say before the end, because even though this happened back in March, I can’t find any indication of who won, or what the shrimp was eventually named. I’ve found quite a few Lebbeus species online, including L. grandimanus, L. groenlandicus, L. balssi, L. elegans and L. polyacanthus (these last two seem to have been discovered in late 2008 in the Sea of Japan), but none of them are our red-spotted yellow and green eBay item. There’s a Lebbeus entry on Wikispecies, but almost none of the species have any details, so it’s not much help.

So what happened? I hope it’s not significant that the auction ended on April 1st… Surely someone out there knows something, but it’s a sad sign of our taxonomic paucity that no central database of Australian species exists. But fear not, lab coat readers! I shall endeavour to follow this up. Emails are even now winging their way toward people who might be in the know, and I’ll post a follow up in the coming weeks.