Taxonomy for Sale to the Highest Bidder

Last December, the environmental group Rainforest Trust celebrated its 30th anniversary by auctioning off the rights to name 12 newly discovered species, including orchids, frogs, and an ant. The Virginia-based nonprofit group claimed the auction raised $182,500 for its conservation programs. The most valuable animal turned out to be a wormlike amphibian from Panama, which drew a winning bid of $25,000 from a British sustainable building materials company called EnviroBuild.

Shortly afterward, the company proudly announced the name they want to bestow on the blind amphibian: Dermophis donaldtrumpi. EnviroBuild said they chose it to bring attention to climate change, which President Trump is “blind” to. “Realizing the similarities between the amazing but unknown creature and the leader of the free world, we couldn’t resist buying the rights in your president’s honor,” Aidan Bell, the co-founder of EnviroBuild, told The Washington Post.

With more than 27,000 species at risk of extinction, auctioning off naming rights seems like a fairly harmless way to increase public awareness and raise much-needed funding for conservation efforts. But as the auctions continue — there are several a year at the moment, according to news reports — some scientists worry about the potential for overly commercial or offensive names. Once a name is recorded in the scientific literature, it will last forever unless declared invalid after further research. There’s also the possibility that assigning the wrong name might actually threaten a species’ survival, as in the case of ​a beetle named by a collector after Adolf Hitler in 1937 that is sought after by modern Neo-Nazis.

“I’m not a fan,” Christian Kammerer, a research curator in paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said of naming auctions. “I think it cheapens taxonomy as a science and an art.” Even so, he understands the motivation: “Taxonomy is in a rough place right now. In general, when we are not funding crucial climate change and emerging disease research, taxonomy is very low on the list.”

The protocols of modern taxonomy were established more than 280 years ago by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who created a hierarchical network for classifying all living organisms known as the binomial nomenclature system. So far, approximately 1.5 million species have been catalogued, and as the number has grown, zoologists, botanists, and paleontologists have become increasingly creative in assigning names to their discoveries. Biologists with a whimsical bent have named deep-sea worms after “Star Wars” characters (Yoda purpurata) and frogs after their favorite musicians (Dendropsophus ozzyi). Recently, a newly discovered frog less than half an inch long was aptly named Mini mum. There’s even an extinct parrot called Vini vidivici.

In most cases, researchers don’t realize they’ve found an unnamed species while out in the field: “Species discovery usually happens in a museum after comparing collected specimens in a lab,’’ said Prosanta Chakrabarty, an associate professor and curator of ichthyology at Louisiana State University. New examinations can find new species in museum collections that were deposited decades ago. It’s then up to a scientist to figure out a name and provide a written description of the species, he said. They also need to identify a type specimen that serves as the exemplar for that species and register it for storage in a permanent collection.

Chakrabarty explained that scientists do their research autonomously — as they are the experts on the organismal group in question — and rarely consult their institutions before they publish a description and name of a new species. If naming rights are to be auctioned off, this would have to be an arrangement that scientists, and a university or nonprofit, have to come to on their own, he said, adding that permission from the country where the discovery is made should be granted before auctions.

The naming of new animal species is regulated by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which states that discoveries should be published in a widely available “public and permanent scientific record,” which generally means a peer-reviewed scientific journal. (Other codes exist regarding the naming of plants, fungi, viruses, and bacteria.) While the ICZN code doesn’t set out specific guidelines for “allowable” names, a section in the appendix on ethics states that “No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.” It adds, however, that “The observation of these principles is a matter for the proper feelings and conscience of individual zoologists, and the Commission is not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches of them.” Adherence to the ICZN code as a whole is also not compulsory.

As a result, researchers have wide latitude, and there isn’t much that can be done once a species has entered the permanent record. Scientists usually stick to formal scientific names derived from Latin and Greek but get the most attention when they target famous people. Barack Obama, for example, has at least 13 animals (and one fungus) named in his honor as a president who worked hard to expand conservation protections in the United States. But occasionally these decisions can backfire, as in the case of the Hitler beetle or that of a parasite named after the reggae legend Bob Marley, much to the chagrin of some Jamaicans.

Some taxonomists, like Kammerer and Chakrabarty, acknowledge the financial benefits auctions can bring but also warn of the long-term risk. “A few thousand can go a long way for a taxonomist, but for permanent entry into the scientific literature? It seems like a pittance,” Kammerer said. Chakrabarty said auctions that result in a species being named after someone not involved in the work can be “abhorrent to the culture of science” and argues that there are other ways to get funding for field work.

Many taxonomists prefer the tradition of naming species to honor individuals who have worked in the given scientific field, or the native lands where the species was discovered, since the plants, animals, and fossils are often an important part of their cultural heritage. “Whenever you name something after someone, it can take away from the purpose of naming species in the first place,’’ Chakrabarty said. “The genus and species of an organism are a way to communicate their unique features.”

Naming auctions seem to have become more popular since 2005, when the discovery of a new titi monkey in Madidi National Park in Bolivia drew considerable attention from the news media. Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), working with a nonprofit called Fundación para el Desarrollo del Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (FUNDESNAP), decided to auction off the naming rights.

Robert Wallace, the director of the Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape Conservation Program for WCS in Bolivia, was part of the team that discovered the monkey. “It was an opportunity to bring attention to an amazing place, because we saw this primate primarily in and adjacent to Madidi National Park,’’ Wallace said.

“It was also an opportunity,” he adds, “to help build financial sustainability for the protected area, which is always something that is unfortunately a challenge for protected areas in Latin America and worldwide.”

The winner, with a bid of $650,000, was the online casino The casino opted to call it the “golden palace monkey,” as it’s commonly known today, though Wallace and his colleagues went with Callicebus aureipalatii in their official taxonomic description, with aureipalatii meaning “of the golden palace” in Latin. Nearly 15 years later, the money from the auction is still being used for conservation in the region.

As for Dermophis donaldtrumpi, which has yet to be officially described in the scientific literature yet, not everyone is on board with EnviroBuild’s decision. ““It is just mean to the creature,” Kammerer said. “I think all animals, all organisms, are precious and irreplaceable and worthy of respect.”

Shaena Montanari is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C. who writes about natural history, health, and the environment. She can be found on Twitter @DrShaena.