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The latest in newly discovered species: You pay for it, you get to name it

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This species of deep sea worm is one of many available for naming at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego)

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Jim Scott, named this new species of orchid Polystachea pamelae, after his mother, Pamela Scott, through the German patronage program, BIOPAT. (Courtesy of BIOPAT)

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A BIOPAT species naming certificate recognizing that Alan Dean Foster, a novelist from Prescott, Ariz., made a donation to name a new frog after his wife, Jo Ann Oxley. (Courtesy of BIOPAT)

Among the millions of marine animals housed in the collection at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., there is an orange, speckled deep sea worm in need of a name. For a donation starting at $5,000, you can give it one.

In order to increase cash flow, in December the institution put the names of more than a dozen newly discovered species up for grabs. Since the collection’s state-funded budget was cut several years ago, they’ve had to raise more than $300,000 a year to keep the research library of creatures and rocks afloat.

“This is irreplaceable information,” said Lawrance Bailey, a director of development at Scripps. “When there’s some kind of expedition, people will collect things and bring them back. They’ll sit on the shelf until someone has time to see if it’s something we know or something we don’t.”

Worms aren’t the only species backlogged in drawers and anonymous in the wild. Though no one knows how many species live on Earth, scientists estimate that maybe only 10 percent have been found. From insects to sea creatures, a new age of exploration is helping chip away at the untold masses.

But these discoveries could be forgotten unless each species gets classified--a task scientists in the field of taxonomy are struggling to keep up with. To support their work, they are leveraging the one thing they hope will appeal to the general public: a piece of immortality. Sometimes to their own chagrin, scientists are increasingly turning to donors, or even the highest bidder, for naming inspiration.

“People think that everything is known, but it’s not,” said Dr. Daphne Fautin, a sea anemone expert at the University of Kansas. “They think that discovering new species is some 17th or 18th century science. It is not.”

Early nature explorers with butterfly nets barely got the tip of the iceberg. Today, there are a numerous organized efforts to systematically catalog life around the world. The Census of Marine Life, for example, a 10-year global collaboration, encountered 700 new organisms in one expedition to Antarctica’s waters alone.

Developing gene technologies are also helping add to the total of new species found. The Barcode of Life project is finding ways to identify known life with a relatively quick scan of a small fragment of DNA. Because species are traditionally identified by their anatomy, it’s often a judgment call whether two similar birds with different colored feathers are one species or really two. The barcodes are helping parse these differences.

But to make discoveries official and more useful records for the worlds of science and conservation, new species must be described and named in a scientific journal. An archetypal specimen is then often deposited in a collection, like the one at Scripps.

The work is not as simple as picking a name out of a hat: First, taxonomists face the tedious task of proving that the proposed species is actually unique.

“The thrill of discovery is always exciting,” said Dr. Neal Evenhuis, a former president of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which governs animal naming rules. “Having to describe it is really hum drum.”

Not the sexiest of sciences, taxonomy is short on both funding and experts.

“We used to get paid to do this,” said Evenhuis, a 33-year veteran in the field. “Now we really have to do it in our spare time.”

As an entomologist with the Hawaii Biological Survey, he dissects the genitals of tiny flies in hopes of identifying new types. He recalls a survey in Indonesia which collected hundreds of gallons of jars filled with insects and spiders in the 1980s. Many of these jars, undoubtedly filled with undiscovered bugs, were not opened again. Evenhuis isn’t hopeful they ever will be.

“You can’t conserve what you don’t know,” he lamented.

This Scripps naming program is not the first to offer up a species. A series of high profile one-off auctions for charismatic creatures began in 2005, when the Wildlife Conservation Society sold the naming rights to a monkey for $650,000. Now, known as the “GoldenPalace.com Monkey,” after a gambling Web site placed the winning bid, the auction highlights some concerns about the trend.

“It’s sort of prostituting ourselves in one way,” said Evenhuis. Still, he says, he’d put his insects on the block for such support.

Ongoing patronage programs have popped up in Germany and Australia in recent years. BIOPAT, the German nonprofit organization, offers a database of species in exchange for a minimum donation of about $3,800 to support research.

After seven years, 121 species have been named through BIOPAT. Jim Scott, 49, from Toronto, named a new orchid discovered in Rwanda after his mother, Pamela Scott, for Christmas. He waited patiently for two years until the perfect species turned up. Polystachya pamelae is a delicate, shiny yellow orchid that reminds him of her.

“I was just awestruck, and I still am,” said Pamela Scott.

“They like to say that a diamond is forever, which it is, until you drop it down the sewer. Having a species named after you, that is forever,” said another BIOPAT patron, Alan Dean Foster, a science fiction novelist from Prescott, Ariz.

Patronage is actually an old model for funding science, said Fautin, a throwback to a time when kings and landed gentry sponsored exploration research and were often honored with species names in return.

Scientists themselves don’t always take naming so seriously. The literature is rife with quirky names, like Abra cadabra and Phthiria relativitae.

Sometimes, they name them to honor people who don’t ask. With the opportunity to name both the genus and the species of a fossil insect, Evenhuis chose “Carmenelectra shechisme.”

He’s unsuccessfully tried to contact the real Carmen Electra to tell her. “The offer’s still good,” he said. “I’ll be willing to meet her.”

E-mail: jel137@columbia.edu