- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

At an odd nexus of politics and science, there are bugs. Lots of bugs. The same scientists who once named fungus-loving beetles after Bush-era heavyweights are at it again.

This time it’s Stephen Colbert’s turn. He is related to a South American arthropod. Sort of.

On Thursday, entomologist Quentin Wheeler of Arizona State University and biologist Kelly Miller at the University of New Mexico announced they had named a new species of a Venezuelan diving beetle after the Comedy Central host.

Alas, Mr. Colbert’s namesake is no glamour bug. The newly crowned Agaporomorphus colberti is bulbous and brown, with alarming antennae and segmented, spiked legs.

It is not particularly attractive.

“The beetle named for Colbert belongs to a species group … (A. knischi Zimmerman) based on the common presence of a pair of rows of fine setae on the dorsal surface of the male’s reproductive organs,” the official proclamation reads.

Setae or not, the waggish scientists sent a handsome framed print of the “Agaporomorphus colberti”to Mr. Colbert just in time for his 45th birthday, along with a card showing the 1-inch beetle scaling a cupcake.

“Last year, Stephen shamelessly asked the science community to name something cooler than a spider to honor him. His top choices were a giant ant or a laser lion. While those would be cool species to discover, our research involves beetles, and they are way cooler than a spider any day,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Last month, Mr. Colbert lobbied NASA to name a wing of the International Space Station after him; the federal agency responded by naming a piece of exercise equipment for him instead - the “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill” or “COLBERT.”

Mr. Colbert was in rehearsal for his nightly show and could not be reached for comment, his publicist said.

Naming rituals in the public sector can draw much attention, particularly when political figures, tax dollars and big buildings are involved.

But bug names? Even they can have a sting.

In 2005, Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Miller - lobbing a few sarcastic comments of their own - named three newly discovered North American beetles with a pronounced taste for fungi after President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld - “Agathidium bushi,” “A. cheneyi” and “A. rumsfeldi.”

The new beetle, meanwhile, arrives with both an agenda and “shameless promotion,” said Mr. Wheeler, director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and dean of its College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

“Charting the species of the world and their unique attributes are essential parts of understanding the history of life. It is our own self-interest as we face the challenges of living on a rapidly changing planet,” he said. “Naming a beetle for Stephen Colbert is in sync with the institute’s goal to popularize science.”

The scientists hope to draw public attention away from the popular hullabaloo of space exploration and back toward home.

“In a time when new planets are being found around other stars and people are wondering whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, many people aren’t aware of how much is not known about life on our own planet,” Mr. Miller said. “Opportunities like this help boost awareness of the vast diversity that remains undiscovered on Earth, and of taxonomy, the science that seeks to discover it.”

The two men are marketing-minded, and also have named beetles in honor of Roy Orbison, Darth Vader, Pocahontas, the states of California and Georgia, explorer Hernando Cortes, each of their wives and one ex-wife.

They also produce a regular top-10 list of new species; this year’s roster will be announced announced May 23.

Although about 1.8 million species have been designated since the protocol for naming plants and animals was established in 1735, up to 100 million species on Earth remain nameless - with just 20,000 new names generated each year, Mr. Wheeler said.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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