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'Khaleesi' slug: When scientists name species after pop culture

by Michelle Lanz and Alex Cohen | Take Two®

A new species of sea slug discovered in Brazil has been named Tritonia khaleesi, after the character Daenerys Targaryen from "Game of Thrones." HBO

The news that scientists in Brazil recently discovered a new species of sea slug may not interest those who could care less about invertebrates, but it's catching headlines because of a peculiar name. 

Instead of naming the new creature after its discoverer or the entity that funded or supported the research, as is typical, scientists at Universidade Federal do Ceará in Brazil named it Tritonia khaleesi, after actress Emilia Clarke's character Daenerys Targaryen in "Game Of Thrones" (or "A Song of Ice and Fire" for those who read the books). 

For reference, the name "Khaleesi" refers to the wife of the "Khal," which is the king of the Dothraki people. The scientists who discovered this new species — Felipe de Vasconcelos Silva, Victor Manuel De Azevedo and Helena Matthews-Cascon — say the name was inspired by the slug's resemblance to the Khaleesi's long, silver, braided hair. In addition, de Vasconcelos Silva says, the slugs diminutive size is also similar to Daenerys, who is described as "low and new."

"Historically, there is a few different ways you can name a species," said Joseph Stromberg of Smithsonian Magazine. "You might just name it after the location where you found it. You might name it after a scientist that you admire, a mentor, someone who brought you up in the field, you could even name it after yourself."

Scientists, however, have been naming species after pop culture entities more and more often. For example, this year a new genus of fern was named after Lady Gaga, and a bee species, a jelly fish and an asteroid were all named after the catchphrase "bazinga" from the TV show, "The Big Bang Theory."

"There's a series of codes that govern the naming of species, but they mostly just ensure that there's no conflict, no duplicate names and that it fits the current system," said Stromberg. "There's a lot of leeway that scientists have in determining what they actually want to name the species in particular."

Giving a new species a name inspired by a popular character can give a generally dull scientific discovery new life by getting the word to the media. For example, scientists this year discovered a new species of termite-dwelling gut microbe, naming it Cthulhu macrofasciculumque, after H.P. Lovecraft's horror creature, Cthulhu.

The simple act of naming it after this monster garnered the research a massive amount of attention. 

"Even within a field you might have better luck at having other scientists notice your discovery just by seeing the various news reports," said Stromberg. "Maybe they're more likely to cite your discovery or to collaborate with you in future work."

But not all in the scientific community see this growing trend as a positive one. Scientific names for species last forever, and some are worried that such ephemeral names will lose their meaning decades or centuries down the line. 

"In 100 years from now, people might not be watching 'Game of Thrones' and have no idea why this sea slug has this particular name, so it is kind of a flash-in-the-pan type of getting appeal for your discovery," said Stromberg. 

Another criticism is that the media attention on these new discoveries is so focused on the name that the actual science behind it is an afterthought. 

"People speculate that if you asked everyone who read this article, 'What is the actual species? What are its characteristics? What's new about it?' They probably would have no idea because most of the coverage is focusing on the name rather than the actual creature," said Stromberg. 

Though this is not a new phenomenon, it is one that seems to be gaining traction as funding for science wanes and scientists are forced to be more creative in getting their research into the public eye.

"Even if people aren't focusing a ton of attention on the actual species...it does bring science into their day and it's something that they are reading about and taking note of," said Stromberg. "I think it also makes science seem more fun...it reminds people that scientists are human too."

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