Frond this way: Lady Gaga’s ferns
Does whimsy trump clarity when botanists name 19 new fern species after the pop superstar?
Lady Gaga, owner of three platinum albums and a wardrobe of meat clothing, is now the namesake of 19 fern species. Duke University biologists, who christened the genus of ferns Gaga, explain that the plants have “fluid definitions of gender” and a likeness to Gaga’s costuming. A string of DNA code found in these ferns, which spells “GAGA,” sealed the deal.
Gaga joins the ranks of several celebrities with eponymous species: President Obama has a lichen and cartoonist Gary Larson has a louse. Musician Beyoncé is the inspiration behind a horse fly with a golden-haired posterior.
Along with many science enthusiasts, I appreciate a hefty dose of quirk (see: this experiment using the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual). But names that sound fun and eccentric on paper can turn out to be offensive, particularly when human health is involved.
This was the case with a protein dubbed Sonic Hedgehog that causes spiky growths in fruit fly embryos. Years after the protein’s designation, researchers discovered that mutations in the hedgehog gene cause developmental anomalies in humans, and the once-cute moniker turned thorny.
In a 2006 letter to Nature, Australian geneticist Ken Maclean highlights the pitfalls of fanciful names: “The quirky sense of humour that researchers display in choosing a gene name often loses much in translation when people facing serious illness or disability are told that they or their child have a mutation in a gene such as Sonic hedgehog, Slug or Pokemon.”
Of course, it’s not likely that the Gaga ferns will turn out to be some sort of reviled plant like kudzu. But even when names are innocuous, scientists should keep in mind that whimsy doesn’t always work.
By opting for informational or standardized labels, scientists avoid the need for tools like The Taxonomic Name Resolution Service, which aims to fix “superfluous, ambiguous or incorrect” plant names. Bad names result in “mismatched records and inflated species numbers,” according to the service’s creators.
Plus, future generations of botanists will never have to learn about Lady Gaga’s charcuterie bikini.