E-commerce giant eBay offers online shoppers a chance to bid on everything from clothing to computers. Now, an entomologist has decided to use the platform to auction off the naming rights for a newly-discovered species of moth.
When a new species is discovered, the honor of naming it goes to whoever found it. However, Eric H. Metzler, an entomologist from the Wedge Entomological Foundation, decided to ask Western National Parks Association—who funded some of his research—to start an online auction and take the proceeds.
The auction went live on Saturday and ends on October 23. The listing started at $500, and at the time of writing 30 people had already bid.
So how exactly does a new species get a name?
Metzler first discovered the moth eight years ago at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. It weighs less than an ounce and measures roughly an inch. Metzler has already discovered 600 species of moths, but it took him several years to get the current species approved.
The winning bidder gets to work with Metzler to produce a name for the moth. But you can't just name a new species anything. There's actually a set of stringent rules and regulations held in place by an organization dubbed the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).
"When you discover a new species, the first thing you have to do is produce a description of it, then these days you might want to do DNA barcoding," explained Paolo Viscardi, a curator at University College London's Grant Museum. "What you're doing is providing a reference so that others can recognise that species."
The moth species then gets lodged inside a museum collection where it's accessible to researchers. The paper detailing its discovery is peer reviewed, and its name either approved or rejected by the ICZN.
When you name a species, the idea is to give it the most descriptive title possible. "You're either describing what it looks like, or where it came from," said Viscardi. Despite the approval process from ICZN, researchers can still get by with some pretty inventive names.
Viscardi cited US entomologist Quentin Wheeler, for example, who named a slime mould beetle he discovered Agathidium vaderi owing to its Darth Vader-like head. Other eccentric names include Craniella abracadabrafor a marine species and Tiktaalik roseae for a 375 million-year-old fossil fish discovered in the Canadian Arctic in 2004, which uses the language of the indigenous First Nations people in the region. Han solo, a Star Wars-inspired trilobite (a hard-shelled marine fossil), was discovered in China by one of the Grant Museum's own researchers, and named as such because it was from the Han province in China.
Auctioning of the naming rights of a species gives an opportunity for a bit more fun, but it's mainly a way to raise funds for natural science research, said Viscardi.
"It's getting harder and harder to get funding to do this research because it's not seen as a priority in the way it used to be, even though it's fundamental to our understanding of biodiversity," said Viscardi.
"Any mechanism where you can raise more funds to continue your work is taken—so I guess [auctioning of the naming rights] is another way to fund your research."
While the bids might give rise to a more democratic naming process, Dave Goulson, a biologist at Sussex University and a fellow at the Royal Entomology Association, expressed qualms.
"I think scientific names should, where possible, help to describe the species. I'm imagining Bombus pepsii, Apis adidas etc….? Don't YOU think that would be awful!?" he said in an email.