What do a lichen, a fish, a spider and an extinct lizard have in common? Only one thing, as it happens: they’re all recently discovered species named for America’s 44th president, Barack Obama.
Lichen – Caloplaca Obamae
Those who know him informally state that Barack “Barry” Obama is a real fun guy, which is likely irrelevant to the fact that the first species named for him was a lichen: Caloplaca Obamae. Lichens are curious composite organisms with attributes of both fungi and plants in that they have the ability to photosynthesize sunlight to acquire energy from their environment.
Speaking of curious, Caloplaca Obamae was discovered in 2007 before Obama was even elected President though discoverer Kerry Knudsen published his work on the new species in March of 2009. Knudsen, who is the lichen curator of the University of California’s Riverside Herbarium, was surveying the diversity of lichens on Santa Rosa Island when he stumbled upon a previously unknown species.
(image via: National Park Service)
“I named it Caloplaca Obamae to show my appreciation for the president’s support of science and science education,” explained Knudsen when asked why he chose to honor Obama in such a manner. “I made the final collections of C. obamae during the suspenseful final weeks of President Obama’s campaign for the United States presidency.”
Though Obama is undoubtedly a groundbreaking president, the lichen named for him isn’t really anything to write home about. The vaguely orange, granular lichen only occurs on the northern part of Santa Rosa Island and its limited occurrence has been greatly reduced as a result of cattle grazing on its prime habitat. As introduced species such as cattle and other grazing animals are removed from the island, it’s thought that Caloplaca Obamae will expand to reclaim its much larger former range.
Spangled Darter – Etheostoma Obama
Speckled Darters (Etheostoma stigmaeum) are freshwater fish in the Perch family – they’re actually the smallest members – and they’re native to rivers and streams in the states of Alabama and Tennessee. In 2012, Steve Layman of Geosyntec Consultants and Rick Mayden of Saint Louis University’s Department of Biology began a study of these fish focusing on how the color patterns of these fish varied by location.
Layman and Mayden noted that a particular population of darters living in Tennessee’s Duck and Buffalo Rivers exhibited distinct patterning along with a suite of common morphological features. The differences warranted a unique name for these darters and the discoverers settled on Etheostoma Obama, the Spangled Darter. Not quite “Star Spangled” but close enough.
“We chose President Obama for his environmental leadership, particularly in the areas of clean energy and environmental protection,” stated Layman, “and because he is one of our first leaders to approach conservation and environmental protection from a more global vision.”
Etheostoma Obama isn’t all that special considering Layman and Mayden ended up renaming 5 new species of Darters – 3 after former presidents and 1 after former vice-president Al Gore. As well, the fish is far from a world-beater: they only grow to just under two inches (50mm) in length. Still, it’s a step up from a lichen at least.