Frond this way: Lady Gaga’s ferns

Does whimsy trump clarity when botanists name 19 new fern species after the pop superstar?

November 13, 2012

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.

About the Author

Ben Guarino

Benjamin Guarino holds a B.S. in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation he joined Penn’s Spine Pain Research Lab, where he studied the motion of artificial intervertebral discs and the painful effects of whole-body vibration. Upon discovering that engineering journals discourage metaphor, Ben decided to shuck his lab coat and don a press badge at SHERP. He’s fond of long runs and bad science fiction, and his Erdos–Bacon number is seven.



Luise says:

I can see your point that this could really get out of hand at some point in time. That said, this type of naming is prevalent throughout science today and throughout the history of science. Think of all the stars and asteroids named after people, newly discovered elements on the period table, and all sorts of flora and fauna.
I love this side of taxonomy. I also think that this is a way to introduce people to science. The Gaga genus of ferns has been reported in so many different types of media and now there are Lady Gaga fans looking at pictures of ferns and learning science. Maybe some of them will become scientists, but all of those who look up the ferns will become just a tiny bit more educated.
We can’t throw out the taxonomic naming rules by any means, but straying from those rules once in a while is great advertising for how awesome science is.

joe birkle says:

thank goodness my lawn is safe from the creeping stuff.until Ben’s article I always considered ferns a take-off on Gaga’s hair!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.