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Could everyone name their own species?

Sir David Attenborough has called it the “biggest of compliments that you could ask from any scientific community,” and he should know: he’s got a whopping 18 animals that bear his name. But for all us average Joes, surely there’s no hope of such lasting fame? If you’re not a politician, celebrity or scientist, honestly your chances are pretty slim- but with a few tweaks to the system, naming your own animal could be a thing.

We’ll start with some number-crunching. And it’s worth clearing up something from the very start: no-one really knows how many species there are on Earth. For the past two decades, estimates have ranged mostly from 2 billion to 10 billion, of which approximately 1.74 million have been described. Then, scientists being a fickle and argumentative bunch, a new study in May 2016 came along that blew all of these guesses out of the park. This mammoth academic work looked at thousands upon thousands of site surveys for lifeforms both great and small to determine the ratio that should exist between these (known as ‘scaling laws’). Having done so, they plugged into these equations the number of large animals we think there are (which is much easier to know) and came out with…


That’s right. Using this fancy mathematical analysis, they came up with an approximation that there could up to one trillion species currently alive today. So given there are so many animals out there, what’s stopping us from each naming our own?

Quite a lot, actually:

Firstly, there’s the issue of ‘who gets the cool animals,’ so to speak. You see, of those trillion species, less than 0.01% of them are likely to be visible to the human eye. And if short people get touchy about their size, who’s going to settle for something they can’t even see? Then of that 0.01%, you’ve got precisely 1 species of lion (already named) and 5 billion species of creepy-crawly. That’s much less chance for you than winning the lottery.

Secondly, there’s that frustrating problem of being able to describe them all. Because it’s all well and good to know you’re destined to have your name immortalized, but if we stick with the current rate of 50 new species being described per day, you’re going to have to wait for up to 420 thousand years for all 7.7 billion humans including yourself to have their turn. Under normal circumstances, you’d have about a half chance your namesake species was still around; with the Anthropocene knocking on the doorstep, chances are pretty slim. And, needless to say, you’ll be long gone- probably alongside the rest of the human race too.

Then there’s the ever-present red tape, in the form of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. This 18-chapter work explicitly states (amongst other things) that scientists cannot name a species after themselves… so make sure to bring a friend!

And lastly, assuming that people are willing to wait for this pretty dubious reward and that our civilization lasts the coming millennia, what of all the new infants born? At a very rough approximation, we can assume the world population levels out at around 10 billion for now (as it’s predicted to do) and the global life expectancy rises to 75 years. That would mean we have 5.6 trillion more people who had lived by the time your special species is described. In other words, more people than species to name- even accounting for the occasional new species that might evolve. You could count the 99% of species that are now extinct, but you’re going to have to face the problem someday. Plus chances are we’ll never be able to find all of these trillion living species we believe exist, let alone trace back to the trillions more that are already dead and gone.

So what’s the moral of the story? I guess unless we all muck out and give those overworked scientists a hand, there’s not a whole lot of chance you’ll get your very own animal namesake. And in all honesty, you’ll probably find it much easier to just go out and become a celebrity. But if that’s not quite to your taste, there might just be a cheat you can use: a German organization by the name of Biopat is accepting donations of € 2,600 in exchange for the opportunity to name a new species. So if you’re rolling in money, then life’s simple. If not, get a pack of cards and learn some patience.

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