Conservation on the Silver Screen: Potter, Star Wars, and their surprising namesakes


Gibbons: Could strategic naming help the world’s declining primate populations?

It is a film franchise famous for its own fantastic ‘species’ such as Wookies and Ewoks. But the most recent species discovered in connection with the Star Wars universe lives in a remote tropical forest in south west China. And it is a real, and endangered, animal.

Earlier this month, the Skywalker hoolock gibbon was declared the world’s newest primate species. In a study published in the American Journal of Primatology, the new species was discovered to be ‘genetically distinct’ from other gibbons of the hoolock genus. Its scientific name is Hoolock tianxing and Rebecca Morelle reports that its common name derived from the fact that  ‘the Chinese characters of its scientific name mean “Heaven’s movement” but also because the scientists are fans of Star Wars.’ (BBC News) The etymology can be further explored in the research article.

I would argue that the naming of this new species is indicative of the way in which the media can be creatively utilised in conservation efforts. The Skywalker hoolock gibbon, though recently discovered is already endangered under the IUCN’s guidelines (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Is it feasible to suggest that the attention such naming attracts on the world stage helps contribute to the global awareness of conservation issues? Are we exploiting imaginative enough solutions to the global extinction crisis?

The naming of the gibbon attracted headlines on many major news sources; it remains to be seen whether or not the articles would have drawn so much attention if the gibbon had been named with only its biological context in mind. Kacey Deamer notes that other species have Star Wars as their namesake, for instance the Chewbacca beetle (Trigonopterus chewbacca), so-called for its legs with scales reminiscent of Chewbacca’s fur. Deamer also cites ‘a Jedi ant’.

Furthermore, a crab has been named with links to the world of Harry Potter. Although its scientific name, Harryplax severus, incorporates references to two characters, the denomination is not all that it would at first seem. For the genus alludes to Harry Conley, a field collector who found the first specimens of the crab. Michael Greshko writes in National Geographic that the genus ‘not only nods to Harry Potter, the book and film series’ protagonist, but it also enshrines Conley himself in the scientific record, the study says—honoring his “uncanny ability to collect rare and interesting creatures as if by magic.”’

By naming with reference to famous film series and much loved characters, the species involved are exposed to a broader demographic than they would otherwise have experienced. Imaginative naming launches the species into the media spotlight. Therefore knowledge and awareness of the sheer diversity of endangered creatures can be considerably expanded.

Some would argue that such naming is of trivial importance and of dubious reasoning, with many of the so named species deriving their names from the simple fact that the scientist involved ‘liked the films’. But from a holistic and cultural stance, this approach to naming – which holds a long tradition – is a means of integrating the two usually diametrically opposed worlds of pop culture and the scientific community.

It may be  argued that by using humorous and innovative techniques in representing the natural world, the significance of conservation efforts can be extended beyond the scientific community; a necessary step in ensuring the success of conservation strategies. Through something so arguably arbitrary as a name, a small population of a species can possibly more viably attract efforts to protect it. With such naming into the future, attention may be more efficaciously drawn towards the minority species that are vulnerable and under disproportionate pressure.

As a recent study (published in the journal Science Advances) reports that 60% of the world’s primate populations are ‘threatened with extinction’, time is running out to be selective about conservation strategies. Even if some may find it a singular contribution to global conservation, surely any course of action that works to promote biodiversity, that has a positive impact in a world full of damaging changes, should be embraced. And with immediacy.

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