Wednesday, February 11, 2015

10 Species Named After Star Wars Characters

Pictures courtesy of Lucasfilm
and J. Armbruster
    Leaving the movie theater in 1977, with Greedo's death at the hands of Han Solo a fresh memory, a young Jon Armbruster could not have anticipated the role that Jabba the Hutt's go-to bounty hunter would play in his scientific contributions decades later.

    And yet...when he (along with Auburn University researchers Milton Tan, Christopher Hamilton, and Dave Werneke) looked upon the un-described suckermouth catfish they had collected in South America, was there any choice but to honor the hapless bug-eyed Star Wars character it so closely resembled? Meet Peckoltia greedoi (on right).

    The description of this catfish, a part of a much larger effort to characterize and identify all species of catfish, has received a fair amount of attention in the media. And, this got me thinking: it is unlikely that this group of ichthyologists represented the only taxonomists who also happened to be Star Wars fans, were they the first to name a species after a Star Wars character? It turns out the answer is no!

   Bonus points for Samuel Turvey, who, upon describing a fossil trilobite came up with not only a new species: solo but also a new genus, you guessed it: Han. That's right, there is a trilobite with a scientific name of Han solo. Apparently a few friends had dared him to name a species after a Star Wars character. Well played Samuel Turvey.

The lair of a Trapdoor Spider. Pic M. Hedin.
   I did not actually have to look too far to find another example of a Star Wars inspired species. Jason Bond (director of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History and therefore my supervisor), in describing 33 species of Trapdoor Spiders (Aptostichus), named one of them Aptostichus sarlacc. The Sarlacc Trapdoor Spider lives in California (only two specimens are known). On the other hand, the Sarlacc Monster, you may remember, is the subterranean beast that devoured Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi (presumably for thousands of years). I have to admit the tunnels of Trapdoor Spiders are quite reminiscent of the sandy burrows you may find on Tattooine.

    Within the gills of a burrowing crab (Albunea groeningi, itself named after the creator of The Simpsons) lives a small parasite, Albunione yoda. This marine isopod earned its namesake because of the elongated shape of the female's head, which apparently resembles Yoda's ears.
Photo: David Shale
    Speaking of Yoda's ears, they are apparently what researchers thought of when they first set eyes upon this purple acorn worm (on right) that lives deep in the Atlantic Ocean. It is now named Yoda purpurata. 
    Sometimes it is not clear why a taxonomist has named a species (or genus) after something they saw in Star Wars. For example, I do not know much about the arboreal mites of Australia. But, I do know that one entire genus is named Darthvaderum and that Glenn Hunt likely knows full well the power of the Dark Side. There is also a species of ant, Tetramorium jedi, known only from Madagascar. Finally, there are three species of wasps in the Polemistus genus named, respectively, P. chewbacca, P. vaderi, and P. yoda.

    So, as far as I can tell there are ten species (or genera) named after something in a galaxy far, far away, but P. greedoi is the first vertebrate to have the honor. Kudos to the Auburn crew for recognizing one of the relatively obscure Star Wars villains (I mean c'mon, does Yoda need three species named after him?) and rest assured that should I ever get the opportunity, Salacious Crumb will one day be similarly immortalized.

For further reading: 

Armbruster, J., Werneke, D., & Tan, M. (2015). Three new species of saddled loricariid catfishes, and a review of Hemiancistrus, Peckoltia, and allied genera (Siluriformes) ZooKeys, 480, 97-123 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.480.6540
In the course of researching this post, I came across this similar article which revealed to me the existence of the Darthvaderum mites.

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