The first insect Bryan Lessard named after a pop culture icon was the Beyoncé fly – Scaptia beyonceae, in 2011.
At the time, the CSIRO entomologist caused quite a stir, and was “frowned upon” by some taxonomists.
A decade later, the cultural icon RuPaul has become the first drag queen to be forever enshrined as a soldier fly, and is the 50th species to be named by Lessard.
The RuPaul fly is part of a new Australian genus named Opaluma (from the Latin words for opal and thorn), because they look like “little gems buzzing around the forest floor” and have a distinctive thorn tucked under their abdomen.
Lessard said the growing practice of naming insects after pop culture icons had helped threatened species gain attention in response to environmental threats such as climate change.
“There’s a new wave of entomologists using pop culture to generate interest in our science and what we do, which is really exciting,” Lessard said.
“It’s a great way of generating attention about why flies are important, to get as many people as possible talking about these species that need help, so they can be protected.
“With bushfire recovery efforts, normally the interest goes to the cute and cuddly species like koalas, but a lot of the invertebrates don’t have any attention, and they’re the essential workers of our ecosystem … it’s really important we study them.”
Lessard said naming the soldier fly Opaluma rupaul came as an “obvious decision”.
“I was watching a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race while examining the species and I know it would challenge RuPaul on the runway serving fierce looks,” Lessard said.
“It has a costume of shiny metallic rainbow colours, and it has legs for days. I think once (Ru) sees the fly she’ll realise it’s quite fierce and hopefully appreciate the name.”
Nine of the 13 new soldier flies named by Lessard are from areas badly burned by the 2019-20 bushfires. Two species had only been sighted in Queensland’s Lamington national park, which lost 80% of its cover during fires.
“Naming a species is the first step to understanding and protecting them because otherwise they’re invisible to science,” Lessard said.
“We’ve probably lost thousands of species we don’t even know about in the bushfires because they haven’t been documented, when it’s so important our native species get that attention.
“That’s why I want to give them fabulous names, to get people excited about them.”
Other species, named by the PhD candidate Yun Hsiao, include three beetles named after Pokémon characters Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres, and a new cycad-boring weevil named after the fictional insectoid Digmon from the Japanese anime television series.
The insectoid possesses the power of drilling and manipulating the earth, just as the weevil can bore into hard trunks of cycads.
“He’s a massive Pokémon fan,” Lessard said. “Pokémon inspired him to become an entomologist, and he noticed three beetles were really hard to find in remote areas of Australia, kind of like these really rare legendary Pokémon.”
Lessard hoped their work would encourage citizen scientists and conservationists to help to monitor wildlife and insects, part of a national push for scientists to document and name every Australian species.
He said documenting native species would make it easier to identify exotic mosquitoes and prevent the potential incursions of new diseases.
“We were able to identify a new exotic mosquito this year that’s a vector of Japanese encephalitis virus, and used DNA printing to match it to a population in Timor-Leste,” Lessard said.
“We think they might have been wind-blown over the sea, or hitched a ride on shipping vessels. But when first detected in Darwin, it was confused with a native species.”
Australia was home to an estimated half a million species, with 70% yet to be discovered.
At the current rate of taxonomic discovery, it would take more than 100 years to document all of Australia’s unknown species.
Lessard hoped the process would be ramped up in the coming years as the perceived value of taxonomy increased.
A Deloitte report released in June found the benefit of documenting Australian biodiversity would be worth between $3bn and $29bn.
“We really need to encourage next generation to help us name and describe and protect our unique biodiversity in Australia.”