Certain exceptional historical circumstances shape those who have experienced them so much that they decide to leave a sign of their times as a reminder for those who come later. All cities have statues and monuments that commemorate some kind of historical circumstance or events. Sometimes, they seek to immortalize tragedies over people and activities. For example, in Valencia, Spain, you can still find a plaque that says: “The flood came up to here,” which refers to the Turia River flooding in October 1957, which inundated the city and caused an undetermined number of victims. In northern Europe there are “hunger stones,” which are engraved and found in riverbeds. If they are visible, it means that it is a year of extreme drought, so the texts adorning them say something to the effect of “if you see me, cry” because, if they are uncovered, it is an unequivocal sign of a lack of water, a bad harvest and, therefore, hunger.
In science, when a person’s job is to discover, he or she may have to name a new phenomenon or element. There are different rules for this, depending on the discipline. In medicine, it is quite common to give the name of the first person to describe or invent a technique, although it is also very common for a historian to discover sometime later that the person who gave their name was not really the first. In chemistry, the names of new elements do not usually bear the name of the discoverer but rather pay tribute to other scientists or refer to geographical locations. For example, the chemical element curium was not discovered by the Curies, but Madame Curie did discover polonium (named for the country of her birth). In biology, the criteria for naming genes change from organism to organism, but they should not receive personal names either; they are given names that refer to the gene’s biological function; a sense of humor is often used in such monikers. For example, there is a plant gene related to the development of the male reproductive system of the flower called SUPERMAN (genes are written in capital letters) and a fly gene whose mutation makes it much less tolerant to alcohol is called CHEAP DATE.
To name a new living being, scientists follow Linnean binomial nomenclature criteria, meaning that the name of the genus goes first, in capital letters, followed by the name of the species, in lowercase letters. Unlike in other fields of science, Latin must be used here, and there is a great deal of freedom in choosing the name. Thus, we have the opportunity to commemorate a specific event when we name a newly discovered organism.
In recent years, the greatest tragedy that humanity has experienced was the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. During this process, many scientists took the opportunity to publish their findings, and they wanted to leave a mark for posterity about the difficult time during which they described a new species. In April 2021 in the Biodiversity Data Journal, a new species of trichoptera (insects with aquatic larvae and terrestrial adults) was identified and named Potamophylax coronavirus. In October 2021, an explanation of a beetle named Trigonopterus corona was published; as its authors noted, the name stemmed from the fact that the pandemic forced them to cancel their field work and focus on their writing. And we also have two wasps with names related to the pandemic: Stethantyx covida, identified in Mexico in October 2020, and Allorhogas quarentenus, identified in Brazil in April 2021. Thus, COVID has left its mark in taxonomic records for posterity. Let us hope that it will not be repeated.
J. M. Mulet is a professor of biotechnology.
Between 'Star Wars' and Barça
It is not only human tragedies that serve to christen new zoological discoveries. Alexander Riedel, one of the discoverers of the T. corona beetle (mentioned in the text) is a self-professed fan of the Star Wars saga; among the other species of the genus Trigonopterus that he has named are T. ewok, T. chewbacca and T. yoda, monikers that pay tribute to George Lucas’s legendary characters. In Cadiz, Spain, a spider was discovered at Alcornocales park and named Phlegra blaugrana because of the striking color of the abdomen of the males, which resembles a Barça soccer jersey.
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