Researchers aboard the RSS James Cook discovered the new breeds of worm between Iceland and the Azores on a trip into the field to track the distribution of sea life within the Mid-Atlantic Region.
The interest in these animals is easy to explain: worms like Yoda purpurata offer the closest thing we have to a living link between vertebrate and invertebrate animals. This should lead to some tremendous insight into the shared history of animal life. Naming such a worm after a Jedi master and a key figure in George Lucas’s epic space opera then doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination.
Yoda isn’t the first creature to be named after a public figure, fictional or otherwise. Just ask the researchers who discovered the Beyonce horsefly, or the team that named the Freddie Mercury isopod.
The naming of new discoveries is sometimes used to honor public figures who have helped to promote science, other times it may simply be linked to a researcher’s favorite musician, actor or author, and sometimes, as in the “God(damn) Particle,” it may refer to how difficult the discovery was to make in the first place.
Perhaps thanks to policies that seemed to favor superstition over science, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney all have slime molds named after them.
Worms like the Yoda are interesting and scarce. Rarely seen floating about, Acorn Worms tend to spend most of their time in burrows beneath the ground. These ocean-floor animals leave spiral traces of feces in the sand, most comparable in appearance to the phenomenon of crop circles.
Discovered through the ECOMAR research system, the Yoda is an example of a worm previously known only through fossils of these spiral traces. It wasn’t until quite recently that these Acorn Worms were actually discovered in the flesh. The new data produced by research endeavors like ECOMAR has offered a lot of new territory for biologists and natural historians to explore. Call it a marketing gimmick to get the public interested in one of the most important discoveries in biology in recent years, but the Yoda worm may well represent the future of the field.