Meet 9 Species Named After Obama

Tosanoides obama was discovered in 2016 off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: Richard L. Pyle/ZooKeys)

It's almost always an honor to have a species named after you, whether the creature in question is a bird, a beetle or a blood fluke. Its legacy — an ancient, hard-fought crusade for survival — becomes officially branded with your personal identity.

Many species are named after whoever discovered or identified them, but scientists also look to various people they admire, from artists and athletes to political leaders and family members. (Some species even get their names from fictional characters, like Quasimodo, Batman, Han Solo and Spongebob Squarepants.)

Biologists have added several U.S. presidents to this club, often to honor their views on science or conservation. Theodore Roosevelt's name now graces at least seven different animals, for example, including a rain-forest elk, a savanna shrew, a Fijian ant, a rare barking deer and a critically endangered Puerto Rican lizard. Abraham Lincoln has a wasp, Franklin D. Roosevelt has two amphipods, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both have fish. Thomas Jefferson has an entire genus of plants.

Barack Obama is an especially popular namesake, with nine species already bearing his name after eight years in office — more than any other president, according to Science Magazine. This may seem trivial compared with his actual policies and wildlife protections, but it's still a big tribute. "Honestly, it's difficult for me to envision a higher honor," Auburn University professor Jason Bond told the Washington Post in 2014, referring to a spider he named after Obama. "It's permanent."

Here's a look at the array of wildlife named in Obama's honor:

Aptostichus barackobamai (Barack Obama trapdoor spider)

Barack Obama trapdoor spider, Aptostichus barackobamai
Aptostichus barackobamai is native to redwood forests in California. (Photo: Jason E. Bond/Wikimedia Commons)

Along North America's central Pacific coast, a biodiversity hotspot known as the California Floristic Province is home to more than 2,000 endemic species of plants, along with a wide variety of animals. That includes 33 species of trapdoor spiders first identified in 2012, most of which exist nowhere else on Earth.

Trapdoor spiders are a diverse group of arachnids that live in underground burrows with a camouflaged door, hinged on one side with silk. When unsuspecting prey wanders too close to this door, the waiting spider can burst out and grab it.

Those 33 previously unknown spiders were introduced in a 2012 study by Jason Bond, a spider expert at Auburn University. Bond named several after famous people, including comedian Stephen Colbert (Aptostichus stephencolberti) and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez (Aptostichus chavezi). One reddish-brown spider from Northern California's redwood forests was named Aptostichus barackobamai, both as a general tribute and as a nod to Obama's love of Spider-Man comics.

Etheostoma obama (spangled darter)

Darters are small, fast-moving fish native to eastern North America, living near the bottoms of clear streams and relying on speed to stay alive. About 200 species are officially recognized, from the widespread rainbow darter to obscure species found only in a single river. The males' vivid coloration helps scientists identify species.

In 2012, five new darter species were identified in a study by two biologists from Georgia and Missouri. The researchers decided to name each after a U.S. president or vice president with a strong environmental record, and the first name on their list was Obama. Thus, the spangled darter — a 2-inch Tennessee native whose males have bright orange, blue and green scales — is now Etheostoma obama.

As Layman and Mayden told Scientific American in 2012, Obama earned the honor by taking a more holistic approach to ecological issues: "We chose President Obama for his environmental leadership, particularly in the areas of clean energy and environmental protection, and because he is one of our first leaders to approach conservation and environmental protection from a more global vision."

Nystalus obamai (western striolated puffbird)

western striolated puffbird, Nystalus obamai
The western striolated puffbird inhabits tropical and subtropical forests in Bolivia, western Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. (Photo: Joao Quental [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Fluffy, big-headed "puffbirds" inhabit forests from Brazil to Mexico, sitting on open perches to scan for insects. At least 37 species exist, including the striolated puffbird (Nystalus striolatus), an Amazon Basin resident first identified in 1856.

In 2008, ornithologist Bret Whitney of Louisiana State University found an unusual striolated puffbird in Brazil. He returned in 2011, collecting more of the birds and analyzing DNA to confirm they're a distinct species. He proposed declaring them as such in 2013, offering the name Nystalus obamai to honor Obama's focus on renewable energy, a proposal that was eventually accepted by the American Ornithological Union's South American Classification Committee.

"He is a fair-minded, resolute and visionary humanitarian," Whitney tells Wired of the bird's namesake. "The mainstream use of solar power around the world will benefit all, including the flora, fauna and people of Amazonia."

Obamadon gracilis (extinct Cretaceous Period lizard)

Obamadon gracilis
Obamadon is the small lizard in the foreground of this illustration. (Photo: Carl Buell/Yale University)

Obamadon is the small lizard in the foreground of this illustration. (Image: Carl Buell/Yale University)

Dinosaurs weren't the only animals whose luck ran out 65 million years ago. The asteroid widely blamed for killing them also took a heavy toll on other life, a 2012 study found, especially the diverse mix of snakes and lizards that lived at the time.

While examining fossils for that study, researchers from Harvard and Yale identified nine new species of extinct lizards and snakes. One of the most diverse lizard branches they studied was Polyglyphanodontia, which accounted for up to 40 percent of all lizards in North America before the asteroid wiped it out. They came across one small, unnamed polyglyphanodontian with long teeth that reportedly reminded them of President Obama's smile, leading them to name it Obamadon gracilis.

Paragordius obamai (cricket hairworm)

Paragordius obamai
A female Paragordius obamai lays strings of white eggs. This species is a parasite of crickets. (Photo: Hanelt, et al./PLOS One)

Hairworms are parasites of insects and crustaceans, thankfully not humans. They infect their hosts as tiny larvae, then grow to take up most of the space inside the host's body. Once mature, they manipulate their host's behavior and compel it to seek out water, where the adult hairworm can emerge for its aquatic life stage.

In 2012, a study revealed an apparently all-female species of cricket hairworm from Kenya that reproduces via parthenogenesis. It's an "ingenious" adaptation, according to University of New Mexico biologist Ben Hanelt, since hairworms' preference of one parasite per host can make it hard for them to find mates. "Our results show that this species consists only of females and that these females alone produce viable eggs," Hanelt said in a press release, adding that "it is very likely an evolutionary solution to the difficulty of finding a partner in nature."

Naming a species after someone may not always seem like a compliment, especially if that species is a parasitic worm. But for biologists who dedicate careers to studying such creatures, it's usually high praise to be the namesake for any form of life, even a hairworm. Hanelt named this one Paragordius obamai as an honor to President Obama, whose father was raised near where the species was discovered.

Baracktrema obamai (turtle blood fluke)

Baracktrema obamai
Baracktrema obamai is so distinctive that a new genus, Baracktrema, was named to include it. (Photo: Thomas R. Platt)

Baracktrema obamai is so distinctive that a new genus, Baracktrema, was named to include it. (Image: Thomas R. Platt)

In case one parasite wasn't enough of an honor, Obama's name has also been bestowed to a blood fluke that infects freshwater turtles in Malaysia. The species is so distinctive that researchers also established a new genus for it, something that hadn't been done for this group of turtle parasites in two decades. They named that after Obama, too, resulting in a species known as Baracktrema obamai.

This species targets turtles, but it's a distant relative and likely ancestor of flatworms that cause schistosomiasis in humans, researchers say. Studying the evolutionary history of parasites like these could lead to valuable insights for public health.

B. obamai was the last species named by parasitologist Thomas R. Platt before he retired in 2016. Platt was inspired by genealogy research that traced his and Obama's families back to a common ancestor, but he also told Mashable the parasite reminds him of the president — in a good way. "It's long. It's thin. And it's cool as hell," he said. "This is clearly something in my small way done to honor our president."

Teleogramma obamaorum (Congo River cichlid)

Teleogramma obamaorum
Teleogramma obamaorum is named in honor of both Barack and Michelle Obama. (Photo: Melanie L.J. Stiassny/AMNH)

The spangled darter isn't the only rare river fish named Obama. A small, snail-eating cichlid was discovered in the Congo River in 2011 by Liz Alter, a biologist at the City University of New York, and Melanie Stiassny, an ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who named it Teleogramma obamaorum in 2015.

Alter and Stiassny chose the plural obamaorum to name the species after both Barack and Michelle Obama, honoring the president's work on economic development in Africa and the first lady's efforts to train more female scientists. Plus, as Alter told Grist, a good name can draw valuable attention to vulnerable wildlife.

"Tropical freshwater habitats are some of the most endangered in the world," she said. "The Congo River in particular is a little-explored library of evolutionary diversity. There are an extraordinary number of unique lifeforms like the Obama fish that live only in this place. But the habitat is under threat from climate change, overfishing and a major new proposed dam. We're hoping that discovering and cataloging this extraordinary wealth of life will help us to protect it."

Caloplaca obamae (firedot lichen)

Caloplaca obamae lichen
This lichen was the first species named after President Obama. (Photo: J.C. Lendemer/University of California-Riverside)

The first species named after Obama was a rare lichen that grows on California's Santa Rosa Island, christened Caloplaca obamae back in 2009. It was discovered in 2007 by Kerry Knudsen, lichen curator at the University of California-Riverside Herbarium. As Knudsen explained in a press release at the time, the name is meant "to show my appreciation for the president's support of science and science education," although happenstance also made Obama a natural choice.

"I made the final collections of C. obamae during the suspenseful final weeks of President Obama's campaign for the United States presidency, and this paper was written during the international jubilation over his election," he said. "Indeed, the final draft was completed on the very day of President Obama's inauguration."

Tosanoides obama (Hawaiian basslet)

In August 2016, President Obama expanded Hawaii's Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles, making it one of the largest nature preserves on the planet. Weeks earlier, a NOAA expedition to Papahānaumokuākea had discovered a new species of basslet, a colorful reef fish that scientists would soon name after its presidential protector and fellow Hawaiian.

"We decided to name this fish after President Obama to recognize his efforts to protect and preserve the natural environment, including the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea," said Richard Pyle, a researcher at Oahu's Bishop Museum and lead author of the study describing Tosanoides obama. "This expansion adds a layer of protection to one of the last great wilderness areas on Earth."

Coral reefs around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are full of fish that exist nowhere else on Earth, but this basslet is the only known reef fish whose entire habitat is limited to Papahānaumokuākea itself. By naming the species after Obama, Pyle and his colleagues hope to illustrate the importance of protecting pristine marine ecosystems like this, which tend to be teeming with biodiversity.

"These deep coral reefs are home to an incredible diversity of fishes, corals and other marine invertebrates," said co-author Brian Greene, a deep diver and researcher with the Association for Marine Exploration, in a statement about Tosanoides obama. "There are many new species still waiting to be discovered down there."