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The Naming of the Shrew

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 03:30 PM

An artistic rendition of a small brown rat/shrew animal with pointy snout and long furry tail reaching a dragonfly-like insect in an ancient jungle world. An artist’s rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor, a small insect-eating animal. (Carl Buell/American Museum of Natural History)

Hello! First, we wanted to say thank you -- we received over 1,000 submissions for the Name Your Ancestor contest, and after six weeks of voting, you, the public, narrowed it down to one name, and one name only: Schrëwdinger. It was a heated battle (we'll miss you Furst!); for more on the naming of our great, great, great, greaaattttt....etc ancestor, check out our story about the day the dinosaurs died...Schrëwdinger's in there.  

Here's your chance to name a species.

About two weeks ago, the world of humans was introduced to our collective great great great great great great great… [bajillions of years great]... ancestor, this little shrew-like guy (or gal).

How could we be related to that? Well, it turns out that this creature is one of the few species of mammal to survive the asteroid that smashed into earth about 66 million years ago and caused mass extinctions. When this critter emerged from its asteroid shelter the day the dust cleared (we like to think of it hiding in a little burrow while the earth was engulfed in flames), it went on to spread across the land, growing, dividing, and diversifying; lending its DNA to the huge branch of mammals known as placental mammals (placental meaning young developed in a womb, with the protection and nutrition of a placenta, as opposed to those developed in an egg or pouch). Which all goes to say: the shrew-looking species you see above led to a huge array of creatures, from whales to bats, to… us.

When the news about this common ancestor first broke, I jumped on the phone with the lead scientist Maureen O’Leary (we’re working on a future Radiolab story about asteroids and dinosaurs and days of reckoning, so we are very interested in this long-lost relative). And as we were talking, I discovered that this little creature has a big problem. It doesn’t really have a name.

You see, scientists are actually not allowed to give it an official, Latin name (such as Homo sapien, the Latin alias for humans). Why? Because so far this ancestor of ours exists only as a drawing. We haven’t found any fossils of it. Instead, the team of researchers re-created it by crunching a whole lot of data, and then collaborating with an artist to show us what it looked like (Awesome? Awesome -- read more here: Tracing the Age and Face of the Placental Mammal Ancestor.)

According to The Science Rulebook, no fossil = no fancy name. And it wasn’t given a nickname either, because when you’re a scientist saving the world, who has the time? Instead, our ancestor has been known by what feels to be a pretty underwhelming, very literal moniker: the hypothetical placental mammal. O’Leary joked that maybe Radiolab could help the team come up with a nickname.

And that is where you come in. 

Radiolab is teaming up with New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (one of the partners on the scientific research) and YOU to Name Your Ancestor.

You suggest the names. Radiolab and AMNH narrow it down to the top contenders. The world votes on the finalists. Then, we pop the bubbly and shout the winner from the rooftops, keeping the name alive.

So. What are we (and the AMNHers and scientists who are picking the finalists) looking for in a nickname? Something that does for this shrew doppelgänger what Lucy did for Australopithecus. We need to transform this placenta mammal the way "King Tut" helped "Heru Nebu: Wetches Khau Sehotep Neteru" (“He who Wears the Crowns and Satisfies the Gods”) become a household name. The way Jay-Z reinvented Sean Carter. A name that lives somewhere between dog and Fido; the former is a label for an entire species, the latter is a fun handle that's become shorthand for "cuddly canine friend."

We need something light, snappy, sweet; something that’ll earn this little guy respect both in the halls of academia and on the street. A nickname to stand the test of time.

To enter, play, and/or vote:

As of Tuesday, March 5, we are no long accepting submissions for names, but you can still vote on the winning name, starting Tuesday, March 12! The contest runs throughout March, and the winner will be announced in early April.

Radiolab and AMNH will narrow down your suggestions and put them into a bracket for all the world to vote on through single-elimination rounds. The winner of this “March Madness” tournament will receive a print of the illustration of the animal formerly known as the hypothetical placental mammal, signed by some of the study’s scientists and the Radiolab team, along with tickets to the Museum.

The scientists suggest a couple of things to consider before you submit a name:

  • The common ancestor is a species and contains both males and females
  • Because there is no fossil specimen associated with the common ancestor, please avoid giving it a Linnaean, or scientific, name. (For example, the Linnaean name for dogs is Canis lupus familiaris. We don't want that.)

 

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