Next Thursday, Hugh Edmeades of Christie’s auction house will bring down the gavel in Monaco’s famed Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium.
When he closes the bidding, a sinuous shark recently discovered thousands of miles away in Indonesian waters will have a new scientific name. And hundreds of thousands of dollars will be deposited in a bank, earmarked for programs to protect the shark’s habitat.
The elegant, invitation-only “Blue Auction,” hosted by the Monaco-Asia Society and Conservation International under the patronage of Monaco’s Prince Albert II, is the boldest sign yet of a novel twist in the centuries-old system for naming new species.
Searching for new ways to raise money for environmental causes, scientists and conservationists are increasingly opting to sell naming rights to the highest bidder.
But the trend — which is reshaping the way researchers name everything from monkeys to beetles — has sparked a fierce debate over the future of taxonomy, as well as conservation itself.
Ever since Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus published “Species Plantarum” in 1753 and the 10th edition of “Systema Naturae” five years later, certain rules have governed how plants and animals get their official names. They are always in Latin and consist of two parts: The first specifies the genus; the second, the name of the particular species.
Traditionally, the person who first describes a newfound plant or animal in the academic literature got to name it. There are plenty of other rules in the hundreds of pages of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, but those are the most important.
The rules say nothing about selling naming rights. So after Mark Erdmann, a senior adviser for Conservation International’s Indonesia marine program, and consultant Gerald Allen discovered two new species of sharks last year, Erdmann thought, why not auction off the right to name the creatures they had found?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, explorers frequently named the flora and fauna they found after their financial backers. Erdmann reasoned he was simply updating the tradition by bestowing that honor on anyone willing to donate funds to help a species survive.
“Now you’re going to name something after people who are paying after the fact, but they are paying for the conservation of those species,” Erdmann said this summer as he surveyed the Bird’s Head Seascape, the diverse ecosystem off the Papua province that is home to walking sharks and more than a thousand other species. “Same difference.”
Erdmann, who will attend this week’s auction to see who gets to name his sharks, is not the first to go this route. In late 2004, Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Robert Wallace discovered a foot-tall, brown-and-orange monkey weighing about two pounds in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park.
Locals had known about the monkey for years, but it had never been formally described. Wallace wanted the park, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, to benefit, so he and his colleagues gave the naming rights to a governmental agency and a conservation organization in Bolivia and organized a one-week online auction.
In March 2005, the Golden Palace Casino — an online gambling operation — paid $650,000 for the rights and named the primate Callicebus aureipalati i. (Aureipalatii means “golden palace” in Latin; the casino was not allowed to add “.com” because that could not be Latinized.)
Today, the casino has a Web site dedicated to its official mascot, where customers can not only listen to the primate’s cry but also purchase GoldenPalaceMonkey.com T-shirts, tracksuits and even thongs.