Some people decorate their homes with posters of famous musicians, but cave biologist Iva Njunjić is more into actual beetles than she is The Beatles. That much is obvious the moment you step over the bug-themed doormat into her apartment-cum-home laboratory in the Dutch city of Leiden. Wearing a beetle-print T-shirt, the cofounder of Taxon Expeditions proudly shows off plastic containers packed with tiny specimens from her field work, before conceding that maybe insect science isn’t “sexy” to everyone.
That is, unless Leonardo DiCaprio’s involved.
When Njunjić and her team announced last week that a diminutive water beetle discovered in the jungles of Borneo last year would be named after the Titanic star in honor of his environmental activism, social media interest in the obscure insect exploded. Especially after DiCaprio himself publicly promoted Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi, briefly changing his Facebook profile picture to the tiny black insect.
“When I saw Leonardio DiCaprio had changed his profile picture to the beetle, for me I was so happy, just really, I was jumping in the house from joy,” Njunjić said.
Taxon Expeditions, which trains ordinary people to join biodiversity expeditions where they can help discover new species, isn’t the only group of biologists to find a celebrity name works wonders for raising awareness about newly-discovered bugs.
Take Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, a recently-discovered moth whose yellow scales resemble the American president’s distinctive hairstyle. In a report on the discovery, evolutionary biologist Vazrick Nazari said he named the moth, which is found in southern California, after Donald Trump in order to bring attention to fragile habitats in the U.S. that require protection. (Although media coverage at the time indicated the moth’s unusually small genitalia were a factor in the name choice, Nazari has never suggested as much.)
Then there’s Aleiodes shakirae, a parasitic wasp that injects its eggs into a caterpillar. When the larvae hatch and begin to devour the insides of their host, they force the poor caterpillar to bend and twist its abdomen in ways that reminded the scientists of Columbian pop star Shakira’s famous swinging hips. There’s a fly with bulging legs named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, a horsefly named after Beyonce for its “bootylicious” golden abdomen, and a tarantula that dresses in black and hangs around Folsom Prison named for Johnny Cash.
There’s even been another insect namesake for DiCaprio. Last year Ingi Agnarsson, an arachnid expert and professor of biology at the University of Vermont, enjoyed tons of publicity after his team named 15 new species of spiders after celebrities, including Spintharus leonardodicaprioi and Spintharus davidbowiei.
Agnarsson told Earther naming creatures after celebrities is a growing trend as “species discovery is happening at a rate higher than ever before, while we are at the same losing known and unknown species at a record speed.”
“Both the processes of discovery and loss are urgent matters for humanity and naming species after celebrities may help draw public attention to these important issues,” he said.
In a traditional area of academia in which species nomenclature abides by time-honored latin conventions, it might feel surprising that biologists are able to get away with pop culture references. But as long as they abide by strict rules and refrain from using hyphens or accents, celebrity names are no problem, according to Douglas Yanega, who specializes in insect naming conventions for the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.
But Yanega told Earther via email that despite the flurry of media attention insects named after celebrities tend to attract, he’s skeptical the strategy will do much to safeguard the future of threatened species. “With modern media, of course, public awareness may be intense but it also tends to be brief,” he said.
In one case he is aware of, naming a species after a famous person actually harmed rather than helped: the blind cave beetle Anophalmus hitleri, named in 1933 by Austrian entomologist Oscar Scheibel after Adolf Hitler. According to Yanega, the insect “lives in a very limited area of Slovenia, and its caves are visited by trespassers hoping to collect and sell specimens to avid collectors of Hitler memorabilia. The caves and the beetles suffer from this level of attention.”
Still, Yangea says that in most cases a celebrity name will at worst be irrelevant. And many of these creatures could use some positive PR, even if it’s fleeting.
“Honestly, since the general perception of insects is “KILL IT WITH FIRE!” anything that works to counter that perception is a good thing,” he said.
Of course, the motivation to name species after celebrities is often more than a simple publicity stunt. Agnarsson argues that the fifteen celebrities his team honored were also people they genuinely admired, pointing to DiCaprio as an example of a celebrity whose foundation supports conservation and climate mitigation projects all over the world.
“One of the undergraduate students on the paper also hoped that he might notice the paper and ‘go out to dinner with me and talk about climate change’,” Agnarsson said. (Sadly, no luck on that one.)
Back amongst the beetle paraphernalia at Njunjić’s home laboratory in Leiden, the hope is to capitalise on the 15 minutes of fame in a more concrete way.
Taxon Expeditions, established in 2017, funds its scientific work by offering citizens the opportunity to pay to join the expeditions and learn the basics of field work. The organization has already put together an online advertisement crediting the discovery of the DiCaprio beetle to the work of Taxon Expeditions’ “citizen scientists,” and inviting the public to join the next expedition to discover cave fauna in a mountain region of Montenegro.
Despite the global media attention and viral social media exposure, no one has signed up for the trip since the release of the DiCaprio beetle name—although Taxon Expeditions has received plenty of Facebook page likes and curious emails.
Njunjić remains optimistic, however, and not just for everyday citizens to sign up. Asked if anyone on her team is hopeful of scoring a dinner date with DiCaprio out of this, she has a quick response.
“I always hope,” she laughs.
Max Opray is a multi-award-winning freelance journalist who covers the environment and sustainable business in the Netherlands and Australia