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More than 100 newly discovered beetle species native to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi boast an eclectic set of names derived from pop culture, scientific history and even Greek mythology.
As Jessica Boddy reports for Popular Science, the 103 species—recently catalogued in the journal ZooKeys—include weevils, or tiny beetles, named after Star Wars Jedi master Yoda, naturalist Charles Darwin and Greek hunting goddess Artemis. Three characters from the French comic book series The Adventures of Asterix, as well as DNA pioneers Francis Watson and James Crick, also lend their names to the diverse trove of insects.
According to Earther’s Jake Buehler, the newly described species all belong to the Trigonopterus genus. These egg-shaped, long-snouted weevils roam the densely forested islands between Asia and Australia, but until now, they had largely eluded scientists studying the otherwise biodiverse island of Sulawesi. Previously, the only known member of the genus spotted on Sulawesi was T. fulvicornis, a species described in 1885.
“We had found hundreds of species on the neighboring islands of New Guinea, Borneo and Java,” lead author Alexander Riedel, an entomologist at Germany’s Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, explains in a statement. “Why should Sulawesi with its lush habitats remain an empty space?”
Working with Raden Pramesa Narakusomo of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Riedel conducted field surveys of the island and gathered several thousand weevil specimens. To determine whether the insects constituted distinct species, the pair examined the petite critters’ physical characteristics and sequenced their DNA.
The results of this analysis not only confirmed the scientists’ suspicion that Sulawesi was home to far more than a solitary Trigonopterus species, but also highlighted the island’s untapped potential. In a statement, Narakusomo says, “Our survey is not yet complete and possibly we have just scratched the surface.”Three of the weevil species are named after Asterix, Obelix and Idefix, characters from a popular French comic book series (Alexander Riedel)
Crucially, Nick Porch observes for the Conversation, Earth’s beetles include an estimated 387,000 formally described species. Still, researchers believe that around three-fourths of the insects remain unidentified—and as Brett Ratcliffe, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska who was not involved in the study, points out to Popular Science’s Boddy, the window for unearthing these hidden species is rapidly closing due to climate change-driven extinction.
Given the time crunch surrounding such discoveries, entomologists often view the naming process as a necessary evil. Lead author Riedel tells Boddy that he and colleagues from Germany and Indonesia were tasked with naming 101 New Guinea weevil species for a 2013 study. Rather than dedicating valuable research time to concocting unique names, they simply opened a New Guinean phonebook and chose surnames at random, transforming “Morea,” for example, into T. moreaorum.
The Conversation’s Porch outlines a more conventional approach, noting that most researchers base names on the locality where a species was discovered, the collector in question or a unique set of physical characteristics. Riedel and Narakusomo used this naming method for the majority of their finds, according to Earther’s Buehler: T. incendium is named for the Tanjung Api, or Cape of Fire, region in which it was found, while T. squalidulus is recognized for its dirt-encrusted exoskeleton.
In other instances, the entomologists decided to get creative. As a press release reports, T. obelix, named in honor of the rotund Asterix character Obelix, is decidedly larger than T. asterix and T. idefix, which derive their names from Obelix’s comparatively demure companions. Fittingly, the researchers add in the study, a small, greenish forest-dweller is dubbed T. yoda.
The new ZooKeys paper is far from the first to draw inspiration from pop culture: Last year, Ratcliffe published a monograph detailing three scarab beetles named after “Game of Thrones” fan favorite Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons. And in 2016, a separate ZooKeys study announced the discovery of T. chewbacca, a black weevil whose dense cluster of scales reminded researchers of Han Solo’s Star Wars companion.
“When you create names like these, you do it to gain a little bit of notoriety and bring public attention to it,” Ratcliffe told the Omaha World-Herald’s Chris Peters in December 2018. “We’re still discovering life on Earth. One of every four living things on Earth is a beetle. We haven’t discovered them all. We’re not even close.”
The plague is one of history's most notorious killers—but it appears we've underestimated its terrible toll. DNA evidence suggests that plague-causing bacteria infected humans thousands of years earlier than previously believed and likely caused countless more deaths.
The genome study also reveals much about how the plague evolved from a relatively benign bacterium to an efficient killer that would wreak havoc across the globe.
Three devastating outbreaks have previously been linked to the plague by historical records and DNA studies. The First Pandemic began with the Plague of Justinian around A.D. 541 and killed up to 100 million people. The Second Pandemic included the 14th-century Black Death, responsible for killing some 30 to 50 percent of Europeans. And the Third Pandemic, which arose in China during the 1850s, lasted until the mid-20th century.
But when researchers sequenced DNA from the teeth of Bronze Age humans from Eurasia, they found genetic signs of the bacterium that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, in 7 out of 101 individuals tested. That means the plague was infecting people at least 4,800 years ago—some 3,300 years earlier than is known from the historical record.
Notably, the team also found that during those early centuries, the bacterium hadn't yet acquired tiny but key genetic mutations that gave rise to legendary scourges.
“The plague bacterium is very similar to its ancestor, the bacterium Y. pseudotuberculosis,” explains co-author Simon Rasmussen, of the Technical University of Denmark. “But that ancestor isn't so harmful. If you eat it, you'll feel bad, but you don't die from it. So how could a bacterium that's harmful but not deadly evolve into one of the most deadly that's ever existed for humans?”
Historic plague pandemics like the Black Death were mostly spread when humans shared close quarters with rats carrying infected fleas. When a flea drinks an infected animal's blood, the plague bacteria enter the flea's gut, where they not only grow but also block the gut so that the flea becomes extremely hungry. This encourages the flea to reach out and bite more hosts—and thus deliver more plague bacteria.
Plague victims as far back as the Iron Age were infected with Y. pestis bacteria that have the gene Yersinia murine toxin, or ymt, which is required for the pest to survive within a flea's gut. But the new gene analysis, appearing this week in Cell, shows that Bronze Age bacteria lacked this mutation, helping to pinpoint a vital evolutionary moment.
“Here we're able to directly identify when this happened, when this bacteria went from not being able to live in fleas to this very important part of its lifestyle. That tells us a lot about how a pathogenic bacteria evolves into becoming even more dangerous,” Rasmussen says.A scanning electron micrograph image of a flea. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
The more ancient bacteria were also missing a mutation that enabled the infection to spread from the lungs to other tissues like the lymph nodes, Rasmussen notes.
“So at that time we have a kind of intermediate plague,” he says. “These Bronze Age strains couldn't cause bubonic plague, but they caused septicemic plague in the blood and pneumonic plague in the lungs, which you can transmit through the air whenever you sneeze or cough.”
Earlier this year, Wyndham Lathem, a microbiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and his colleagues published a study showing how not-so-deadly bacteria might have become the plague. They used mouse models of Y. pestis infection to show that it was possible the bacterium initially caused the respiratory form of the disease before it acquired the mutations that created bubonic plague and transmission by fleas.
“So what I got excited about reading this study is that we now have evidence that supports that hypothesis,” says Lathem. “If these Bronze Age strains can't be transmitted by fleas, but yet are infecting humans, what's the likely disease that they would be getting? I think it's very likely it would be pneumonic plague.”
That's not to say the Bronze Age version of the disease was less dangerous, Rasmussen adds. “When you get pneumonic plague, it's almost 100 percent fatal. Even today you have to treated within like 24 hours or it's just goodbye. Back then, of course, it was just as deadly and people didn't even know that they had caught a disease or where it came from. It must have been really terrifying”
Still, airborne transmission was likely unable to produce the kind of mass plagues that history later witnessed, perhaps killing on a scale of villages rather than across continents, suggests David Wagner of Northern Arizona University, who recently worked on sequencing the Y. pestis genome from the sixth-century Plague of Justinian.
“When I think of plague, I think of it as a disease of rodents and fleas,” he says. “But what did the fact that it didn't have flea-borne transmission mean for human disease events? It probably meant that it was less common, and I think it says something about the importance of flea transmission during the great pandemics."Seen this past March, an archaeologist works at a mass gravesite found under a Paris supermarket that may contain victims of the Black Death. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER/Reuters/Corbis)
Rasmussen and his colleagues also used their data to trace the plague to its genetic roots. According to their calculations, the common ancestor of all known Y. pestis strains was part of human history 5,783 years ago.
“That age really coincides with the time when people start living in cities," Rasmussen notes. "It's a kind of melting pot environment with lots of humans and animals in houses, and very poor hygiene. People have been thinking for a long time that this environment might have kind of helped to kick off the evolution of many of these very infectious human diseases.”
Further tracing the timeline of plague evolution may reveal whether the disease was involved in historic human migrations. For instance, a recent population genomics study of Bronze Age Eurasians by many of these same authors revealed a dynamic period of large-scale migrations that helped shape the current demographics in both Europe and Asia.
“Did an influx of people maybe bring disease in? Or did people flee from disease?" asks Rasmussen. "We of course can't prove anything about this at the moment, but we can put forth a theory that the plague was involved in these migrations.”
And because disease evolution is ongoing, this type of research is of interest beyond historic events, Lathem adds.
“We continue to learn that small genetic changes can have huge impact on human health and disease,” he says. “We have here a bacteria that was able to infect humans much earlier than we thought, but it was missing a couple of key factors that might have restricted its spread to smaller populations. But then it just picks up one gene and a couple of mutations and suddenly we've gone from small local outbreaks to global pandemic infections.”
For Lathem, that's the really important takeaway message: "It may be that some disease, Ebola for example, could acquire a new gene or piece of DNA and then be spread through the air rather than just through bodily fluids. In that kind of example, we'd then have a much bigger problem on our hands.”
No _________ allowed! At different points during Iceland’s long history, that blank could be filled with everything from beer to man’s best friend. The country’s bans may seem arbitrary at times, but they have shaped the island’s unique way of life. Iceland’s many no-nos have resulted in major cultural shifts, from a capital city inundated by cats to the ways in which children are named. Read on for a few of the quirky bans that gave Iceland its distinctive character:
In 1924, the city of Reykjavik banned keeping dogs as pets. The city’s residents aren’t all cat people—rather, the measure was meant to prevent echinococcosis, a type of tapeworm that can be passed from dogs to humans. In the 1880s, a full 20 percent of autopsies performed in Iceland revealed the disease, which can cause blindness and severe complications. Even now, the disease is hard to treat and has a mortality rate of up to 75 percent, though it is primarily contracted in Africa.
Pooches aren’t illegal in Reykjavik anymore (provided owners get a permit and abide by strict residency, microchipping, vaccination, worming, and leash laws), but the effect of dog-free decades persists to this day. Cats are now the pet of choice in Reykjavik and, as long as they’re microchipped, can roam the streets without consequence. Now, the pets are everywhere—an estimated one cat for every ten residents. The cats of Reykjavik can be found pawing at doors, begging from tourists, drinking from water features, rolling around on the sidewalk and jingling from belled collars. Felines are so ever-present on the city’s streets that stores sell themed merchandise proclaiming that “cats rule the town.”
The city’s cats are so pervasive that they even have their own Facebook page. “The cats really add to the Reykjavik personality,” Anna Guðbjörg Cowden, admin of Cats of Reykjavik, tells Smithsonian.com. “They are pretty popular among Icelanders and tourists alike. Some people even travel the streets in Reykjavik with cat treat bags in their pockets.” Since there aren’t many cat predators in Iceland, says Cowden, felines continue to flourish—and given the city’s still-tight dog laws, many residents still prefer friends that purr.
Snakes, Lizards, and Turtles
Dogs aren’t the only pets who have faced discrimination on the island: To this day, it’s illegal to own snakes, lizards or turtles as pets. The reasoning is murky, but some suggest it’s because a pet turtle gave its owner salmonella in the 1990s, sparking fear that reptiles and amphibians might infect the island nation. Regardless of the reason, the ban hasn’t stopped outbreaks. No large wild populations of sick snakes, lizards, or turtles ever came to be, so perhaps the ban is working (or was never needed in the first place).
They were dark years in an already dark nation—between 1915 and 1989, beer was banned in Iceland. What began as a temperance-fueled, all-alcohol prohibition in 1915 morphed to a ban on just beer in 1933. The ban was mostly political, as BBC writer Megan Lane explained earlier this year: Iceland was struggling to gain independence from Denmark, and beer was associated with the Danish lifestyle. At the time, drinking beer was not only illegal, but unpatriotic. Officials also expressed concern that because beer was cheaper than other alcohol, it might increase alcohol abuse rates.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and to combat beer’s prohibition, drinkers came up with a new cocktail called bjórlíki. The drink featured non-alcoholic beer mixed with a shot of Brennivín, a vodka-like spirit referred to as the “black death” by locals. Beer was finally legalized on March 1, 1989. Each year on March 1, Icelanders remember the occasion with “Beer Day,” a drunken night out that recreates the moment the country welcomed back its beer.
Back in 1966, when the government in Iceland ran the country’s only television station, nothing aired on Thursdays. The ban was in place so residents would get out and socialize instead of staring at a box. And because July was considered a vacation month in the country, the entire 31-day period turned into TV down time. Nothing aired that month until 1983, and it took until 1987 for Thursday shows to finally become a reality. The exact effect of this ban hasn’t been quantified, but perhaps its’s part of the reason Iceland publishes the most books in the world per capita.
It hasn’t happened in about 400 years, but at one time, a Westfjord Icelander who encountered a Basque person was required to shoot on sight. The chilling ban on Basques dates to 1615, when bad weather sank three Basque whaling boats in Iceland. Eighty survivors were left stranded with no food. They took to robbing locals, which heightened tension between the two ethnic groups. The sheriff at the time, Ari Magnússon, decreed that Basques in the region should be killed on sight, leading to the murders of more than 30 Basque natives. In fact, the law stayed on the books until this year. This April, the Westfjords unveiled a memorial honoring the lost souls from the Slaying of the Spaniards, repealed the law, and welcomed Basques once more.
Iceland is the only remaining Nordic country to forbid boxing, clinging to a 1956 ban even in the face of changes of heart from Norway and Sweden, which also long opposed the sport. Boxing was originally banned because residents directly attributed an increase in violent crimes to the sport’s rise in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s. As a direct response to boxing’s ban, alternative martial arts like judo, karate, MMA, and Taekwondo have gained popularity in the country. In fact, one of the most popular figures in MMA is from Iceland: Undefeated Gunnar Nelson from Reykjavik, the sport’s poster child, has spawned the launch of several Icelandic MMA clubs.
Anyone in the Icelandic phonebook is listed by their first name and profession, because last names are not the same throughout families. Each last name indicates the parent, and whether the person in question is the son or daughter of that parent—for example, the daughter of Ingunn’s surname would be Ingunnsdóttir and her brother’s surname Ingunnsson. Taking on a new family surname like Jones or Smith was banned in 1925, and is rigidly enforced today.
Plenty of first names are outlawed, too: Every first name in Iceland not on the government’s official list of 3,565 names must first be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. The goal is to preserve the language, which is the closest to old Norse, and to prevent undue embarrassment from ridiculous names. Though the pre-approved list contains 1,853 female and 1,712 male names, many common names are not on the list. Currently, names are banned when they can’t be conjugated according to Icelandic grammar rules or contain a letter not in the Icelandic alphabet. Sometimes this causes problems, preventing people from being issued passports and leaving kids without official names altogether, only to be referred to as “girl” or “boy.”
Icelanders have adapted to naming regulations in their own unique ways, mixing technology with tradition. A second phone directory called Ja lists people by mobile phone number, and because many names are so similar, yet different, University of Iceland students developed an app that can determine a user’s relatives so they don’t fall in love. A bill to abolish the naming laws surfaced in August this year, but a final decision has yet to be made.