LONDON (Reuters) - What name would you give to a species of Antarctic, sea-dwelling worm that spends its time 2,000 metres below the water’s surface, wriggling in the rotting carcasses of whales?
The British public will get to name five newly discovered species of this deep-sea worm, the Natural History Museum in London said on Friday, as it opens its doors to explain that taxonomy — the practice of naming new species — is not taxing, but fun.
“Our goal is to show that taxonomy, the scientific discipline of naming new species, is interesting, fun and crucial to the advancement of science,” zoologist at the National History Museum, Adrian Glover, said.
The unnamed worms are known as annelids, a group that also includes the familiar garden earthworm, as well as more unusual critters such as the giant hydrothermal vent tubeworm.
Deep sea annelids are an incredibly diverse group and scientists believe they perform vital recycling of nutrients on the seabed.
“These five species of worm are ecosystem engineers that hoover up the ocean floor, which is very important for the ecosystem. We know virtually nothing about these worms — they don’t even have a name yet,” Glover told Reuters.
The scientific names given to animals must be comprised of two parts — the genus and the species — and must have a Greek or Latin origin.
The genus for these five worms is Ophryotrocha, and scientists will ask visitors to the museum’s event, “Science Uncovered,” to examine the specimens and come up with a name for each species.
Taxonomists often consider the shape, pattern, or location of origin of a creature when deciding on a suitable name.
The worms waiting for names were discovered in a variety of marine habitats, including volcanic vents on the seafloor and even rotting carcasses of dead whales — sources of nutrients in a vast underwater environment where food is scarce.
“The names don’t have to be serious, but they have to be the unique. Although the genus is fixed, you can be a bit more imaginative with the species,” Glover said.
“For example, we discovered a group of worms in the Pacific Ocean that, when grouped together, looked like the Greek, shaggy pile carpets you can buy in IKEA, so we named it “flokati,”” he said.
Some scientists have even looked to showbusiness for inspiration in naming new species.
Calponia harrisonfordi is a type of spider named after Harrison Ford, to thank the Hollywood actor for narrating a documentary for London’s National History Museum.
Musician Frank Zappa also has a spider named after him, Pachygnatha zappa, because its unique markings resemble his famous mustache.
However, the importance of classifying the worms is not to be laughed at — taxonomy plays a fundamental role in scientific research.
“Taxonomy gives names to new species linked to actual specimens held in museums, which means we can continue to develop the database of biodiversity on Earth,” Glover said.
“It provides a link between species, so biologists can communicate and know they are working on the same animals,” he said.
“There are strict rules to taxonomy, and we want to explain how it happens and how we link it to specimens in museums. What is crucial is that the name is unique and backed up by data, such as DNA sequences, fundamental descriptions and specimens,” he said.
The London National History Museum collection alone contains roughly 70 million specimens, many of which are smaller animals such as worms, Glover said.
With scientists yet to discover about 90 percent of the estimated 9 million plant and animal species on earth, according to a recent study, this collection of jarred curiosities can only increase with future exploration of the deep seas.
“We don’t even know what’s down there, let alone what role it plays in the ecosystem,” Glover said.
“Exploration of the deep sea is akin to what rainforests were to scientists about 200 years ago, where they discovered lots of new species every day,” he said.
“And the first step to take when you find new species is naming them.”
The free event, “Science Uncovered,” takes place on Friday, Sept 23 from 4-11pm.
Suggestions for naming the worms can also be sent via twitter to @NHM_London, using the hashtags #nameaworm and #SU2011.
Edited by Paul Casciato