One of my nerdier hobbies is collecting apt, goofy, or otherwise clever scientific names. Taxonomy used to be a large proportion of what biologists did, but nowadays it’s become a much more obscure field. This is bad for many reasons–for example, we’ve only discovered and described roughly 10% of the world’s species in a time when extinctions are happening at an accelerating rate–but there are a few upsides. For one, the more obscure the field, the more you can get away with in-jokes in the formal literature.
My scientific name collection falls into several categories. First, there are the delightfully apt names. This category is a consequence of my learning Latin as an undergrad: when I can actually translate a name without reference to a dictionary I get excited, especially when the name describes the organism succinctly and eloquently. My favourite, I think, is Mimosa pudica. You might know it as the sensitive plant – a legume found throughout the tropics (and often grown indoors as well) whose leaves close up when they’re touched. Totally apart from the genus name Mimosa (which, to my knowledge, has nothing to do with the beverage), the specific epithet pudica is wonderfully apt: it means shy, bashful, shrinking, chaste.
Then there are the puns. There’s an entire suite of bug genera whose names look like good Greek, until you say them out loud: Ochisme, Polychisme, Anachisme, etc. (pronounce the “ch” like a “k”). One that got a fair amount of publicity last year is the fly Phthiria relativitae. A completely innocent one familiar to Latin students is Turdus, the thrushes and (North American) robins. I considered a sort-of-pun when naming a species of fish in the genus Trimma: if I had called it Trimma rex, it would be referred to as T. rex for short. And recently, someone did just that with a new species of leech, Tyrannobdella rex.
Naming organisms after famous people for no apparent reason is a fun one, too. (Many species are named after colleagues/people who have contributed much to their field. This is about naming things after people who have nothing to do with the organisms in question.) The spider genus Orsonwelles is a nice example; species within it include O. macbeth and O. othello. Some in this category are more fitting than others, like a recently-described fossil predatory whale called Leviathan melvillei (currently one of my favourite scientific names, along with the “vegetarian” jumping spider Bagheera kiplingi). Naming creatures after fictional characters that they resemble in some way is a related category. The less-than-10-cm-long fish Stonogobiops dracula apparently has very scary teeth.
And finally, the gratuitous classical references. This category was a big one in Victorian times, when (a) taxonomy was fashionable and (b) naming things after figures from classical mythology was fashionable. I consider the genus Heliconius to be the foremost example in this category. Not only is its generic epithet from Mount Helicon, but most of the species within it are named after female figures in Greek mythology (oddly, though, only two of the nine Muses–Erato and Melpomene–are included).
More fun times with scientific names are to be had at this delightful website. If you come across any other exciting names in the literature let me know!