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EEB graduate student Laura Breitkreuz introduces Harry Potter to the magical world of binominal nomenclature

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

LAWRENCE — The discovery of species that are new to science routinely draws public interest and news coverage from around the world — yet, the process of bestowing scientific names to these species remains something of a black box.

“To give a species a new name, the ‘binominal nomenclature’ is used, which Carl Linnaeus introduced in the 18th century,” said Laura Breitkreuz, a graduate research assistant with the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. “This includes two names — one for the genus and one for the species.

There is a whole set of rules to follow for naming species which, in the case of animals, is the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. One of these rules includes for example that the name has to be in Latin or Greek.”

Ordinarily it’s describers of a new species that also select its name, but Breitkreuz and her lab colleagues wondered whether there wasn’t a better way to engage the public emotionally with biodiversity and its discovery via the naming process.

“The idea was to find a way to get people who don’t know much about the naming process of biological species engaged,” she said. “My former lab in Berlin, Germany, came up with the idea of bringing taxonomy closer to the people.”

Breitkreuz and her colleagues selected an attractive red-black digger wasp from a museum collection of undescribed species, then decided to poll 300 people from the public to choose from a selection of scientific names.

“For that we had a booth in the ‘Night of the Museums’ in Berlin with several different activities,” said Breitkreuz. “I was there with the rest of the lab to explain everything and answer the visitors’ questions about taxonomy and nomenclature."

While the wasp already belonged to the genus Ampulex, museum visitors at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde were offered ballots to select from four species names: "Ampulex bicolor,” to denote the wasp’s black-red coloration; “Ampulex mon,” to recognize the earliest-known ethnic group in Thailand, where the wasp was discovered; “Ampulex dementor,” referring to dementors, sinister creatures that consume people's souls in the “Harry Potter” series, and “Ampulex plagiator,” because the new wasp is known to imitate ants in its appearance and movement.

Of the 272 ballots returned, 39 percent of participants chose “Ampulex dementor” from “Harry Potter.” Breitkreuz and her colleagues’ findings were just published by the peer-reviewed journal PLOSone.

“It was clear that the people voted for rather ‘nonscientific’ names and ones that they could identify with — like a character from the ‘Harry Potter’ books,” she said. “After all, a dementor wasp is way cooler than just a bicolored wasp.”

Because such public participation could build interest in the world’s biodiversity, which she described as imperiled and still largely undiscovered, the KU researcher said she favored allowing the public to name species more often.

“Yes, they should — it would help to get more people involved in taxonomy, and maybe some kids would be ‘recruited’ to study this important field of biology,” Breitkreuz said. “But this process takes much more time than a single scientist describing and naming a species; therefore, it can’t be done too often.”

The researcher said that more public engagement with taxonomy even could spotlight global problems like health, food and conservation.

“Describing new species from areas that are endangered helps to draw attention to these regions,” Breitkreuz said. “Taxonomy also affects these problems by finding organisms that can potentially be useful and making them accessible.”

Breitkreuz’ colleagues in the research were Michael Ohl, Volker Lohrmann, Lukas Kirschey and Stefanie Krause at the Museum für Naturkunde.

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