The first insect Bryan Lessard named after a pop culture icon was the Beyoncé fly – Scaptia beyonceae, in 2011.
At the time, the CSIRO The entomologist caused a commotion, and “frowned” some taxonomists.
A decade later, the cultural icon RuPaul became the first drag queen to be forever enshrined as a soldier fly, and the 50th species named by Lessard.
The RuPaul fly is part of a new Australian genus named Opaluma (from the Latin words for opal and thorn), because they look like “little gems that signal around the forest floor” and have unique thorns hidden under their bellies.
Lessard said the growing practice of naming insects after pop culture icons has helped endangered species gain attention in response to environmental threats such as climate change.
“There’s a new wave of entomologists using pop culture to generate interest in our science and what we do, which is really exciting,” Lessard said.
“It’s a great way of generating attention about why flies are important, to get as many people as possible talking about these species that need help, to protect them.
“In bushfire recovery efforts, usually interest goes to beautiful and cuddly species like koalas, but many invertebrates don’t pay attention, and they are the vital workers of our ecosystem … it’s really important that we study them. “
Lessard said the soldier was named to fly Opaluma rupaul came as an “obvious decision”.
“I watch a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race while reviewing the species and I know it will challenge RuPaul on the track delivering a fierce look,” Lessard said.
“It has a costume of shiny rainbow metal colors, and it has legs for many days. I think when (Ru) sees the fast he’ll know it’s pretty fierce and I hope to appreciate the name.”
Nine of the 13 new soldier flies Lessard named are from areas burned by the 2019-20 bushfire. Only two species were found in Queensland’s Lamington national park, which lost 80% of its cover during the fire.
“Naming a species is the first step in understanding and protecting them because otherwise, science doesn’t see them,” Lessard said.
“We’ve probably lost thousands of species that we don’t know about in fires because they haven’t been documented, how important is the attention of our native species.
“That’s why I want to give them fantastic names, to excite people about them.”
The other species, named by PhD candidate Yun Hsiao, includes three beetles named after Pokémon the characters Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres, and a new weevil bore cycad named after the fictional insectoid Digmon from the Japanese anime television series.
The insectoid possesses the power of drilling and manipulating the world, as does the weevil that can penetrate the hard trunks of cycads.
“He’s a huge fan of Pokémon,” Lessard said. “Pokémon inspired him to become an entomologist, and he noticed three beetles that are hard to find in remote areas of Australia, like this really extraordinary legendary Pokémon.”
Lessard hopes their work will encourage citizen scientists and conservationists to help monitor wildlife and insects, which is part of the national push for scientists to document and name every Australian species.
He said documenting native species would make it easier to identify exotic mosquitoes and prevent potential outbreaks of new diseases.
“We identified a new exotic mosquito this year that was a vector of the Japanese encephalitis virus, and used DNA printing to match it to a population in Timor-Leste,” Lessard said.
“We think they may have been blown by the sea wind, or aboard shipping vessels. But when it was first noticed in Darwin, it was confused with a native species.”
Australia is home to an estimated half a million species, with 70% yet to be discovered.
At the current rate of taxonomic discovery, it will take more than 100 years to document all of Australia’s unknown species.
Lessard expects the process to be compressed in the coming years as the perceived value of the taxonomy increases.
A Deloitte’s report was released in June found the benefit of documenting Australia’s biodiversity to be worth between $ 3bn and $ 29bn.
“We really need to encourage the next generation to help us name and describe and protect our unique biodiversity in Australia.”