There's a gecko endangered in the mountains of New Caledonia, but not to worry: Gemma Farquhar, age 10, has his back.
In fact, she gave him his name.
Today, Gemma, a resident of Hi-Nella, Camden County, and a fourth grader at Oaklyn Public School, will be honored as the winner of a national contest to name a species of gecko discovered by Villanova University herpetologist Aaron Bauer during expeditions to New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific.
Scientists usually name their own discoveries, but Bauer agreed to let the naming rights be auctioned off to raise funds for gecko conservation.
The auction winner, reptile food and product maker Zilla-Rules, held the contest for students to increase reptile awareness and promote education about binomial nomenclature, the official scientific system for naming animals and plants. "We really learned a lot," said Linda Hess, Gemma's teacher, whose students located New Caledonia on a map and looked up scientific names online.
Binomial nomenclature has its own written code, but the short version is: Each creature is named for its genus and its species, either in Latin or Greek.
In the case of the contest's gecko, the genus is
About 1,500 students vied to tag the species. Gemma was struck by the idea that some of the more than 1,200 species of gecko face extinction. She came up with the species name
, meaning "endangered."
"Giving this species this name," Gemma wrote in her entry, "will remind us all to take care of this beautiful lizard and to stop destroying our planet."
Gemma, who said she loves animals in general and geckos in particular, said she wanted her name "to mean something important. I thought maybe that name could help get most of the geckos off the endangered list."
She said she never dreamed she would win - until she got The Phone Call. "I could barely breathe, and I gave my dad the phone and I was jumping all over the place," Gemma said.
came from noble motives. But species are named all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. You can't blame the scientists; there are more species than you might think.
Last week the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University released its first State of Observed Species report card. According to the report, nearly 17,000 species of animals and plants were named and described in 2006 alone.
Quentin Wheeler, an entomologist who is founding director of the institute, has named quite a few species himself. In January, ASU held a tribute for the late rock-and-roll singer Roy Orbison. Among the accolades, Wheeler announced that an Indian whirligig beetle had been named
in honor of the singer and his wife, Barbara, who was at the tribute.
A few years ago, Wheeler and a colleague, Kelly Miller, named three slime-mold beetles for President Bush, Vice President Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -
Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi
Wheeler said the president called to say thanks.
In an e-mail, Wheeler said the beetles were named to honor the men's "display of courage of conviction in pursuing policies they believed were in the best interest of the security of the United States in the wake of 9/11, even in the face of unpopularity."
Among others so honored by other scientists are the musicians Neil Young, who had a trapdoor spider named after him, and Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits and Live Aid fame. He's got a dinosaur.
Bauer, the Villanova scientist, has named many species, including one after his wife. A colleague named a lizard parasite after him.
He has a special fondness for geckos, which he said are found around the world and are among the only lizards that call to each other. Their profile has been elevated by the Geico gecko, but, he noted, liberties have been taken.
For one thing, the ad gecko blinks a lot; that particular genus of gecko,
, does not have moveable eyelids, he said. The Down Under accent is off, too.
is found in Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean and Africa.
But Bauer said Gemma's name is appropriate. The
gecko is threatened by mining activity in its mountain habitat.
Today, however, will be a day of celebration. Among Gemma's prizes are a savings bond and a family vacation to Busch Gardens and Adventure Island in Tampa, Fla.
Maybe even cooler will be two live geckos - one for Gemma and one for her school. But, she said, the best prize was having her name chosen: "Since it's a name for life, people might think harder about protecting geckos."