The silliest species names

It’s not easy getting attention in the cut-throat world of fungal systematics. And if your latest discovery is hidden away in the Lambir Hills of Sarawak, it must be harder still.

This may be the reason that professor Dennis Desjardin of San Francisco State University has named a new species of mushroom Spongiforma squarepantsii.

Riddled with holes like a sea sponge, S. squarepantsii is bright orange — although it turns a delicate shade of purple when sprinkled with a strong chemical base — and smells “vaguely fruity or strongly musty,” says Desjardin.

It’s related to the porcini mushroom, though its rarity makes it an unlikely candidate for the dinner table.

But Desjardin is not the only biologist to have attempted to make his discovery stand out from the crowd. Indeed, there’s a time-honoured tradition of scientists eschewing the vanity of eponymous naming to raise a cheap laugh instead.

Many, like S. squarepantsii, use the genus name as the basis for a pun. That’s how we get the Agra vation beetle, for example, along with its cousins A. Phobia, A. culture and A. prefruit. The same goes for the flies Pieza cake, P. pi and P. deresistans.

There’s also a spider named Apopyllus now, and our personal favourite, Ochisme Peggichisme (hint: Ochisme is pronounced ‘Oh, kiss me’.)

But the crown probably has to go to Kelly Miller and Quentin Wheeler, formerly of Cornell University, who named three new beetles Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi. All three live exclusively on slime mould.