Plant Cuttings

Duke botanists go gaga over ferns

Image: Yne Van De Mergel/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Yne Van De Mergel/Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, I know that ‘everyone and their dog’ has probably written something about this item, but sometimes you’ve just got to go with the flow. So, here’s my take on the story that straddles the ‘in your face, excesses and self-promoting world of pop and instant celebrity’ and the usually ‘more genteel, non-sensationalist, staid, safe world of plant taxonomy’, and in an attempt to encourage the new generation of botanists, and by way of ‘getting down wiv da kids’, I offer this atypically topical terpsichorean pteridophytic contribution. So, let’s cut to the chase, a new genus of ferns has been ‘created’ (not in that sense!) and is called Gaga. Yes, it is named in honour of Lady Gaga, an American singer and songwriter of some ‘renown’, I believe. The new genus was established after ferns previously included in the genus Cheilanthes were re-examined by the Duke University (USA) team of Fay-Wei Li et al. with new molecular tools. Those tools include DNA sequence data from the plastid gene matK. ‘MatK, perhaps the most powerful chloroplast marker in angiosperms, has been massively exploited for various levels of phylogenetic studies, and even been proposed as the prime DNA barcode of plants’ (Kuo et al., 2008). But, although widely used in dissecting the angiosperm branch(es) of the tree of life, matK has only recently been developed for use with so-styled ‘lower’ plants, such as ferns (Kuo et al.). The matK gene sequence of Gaga features a prominent ‘GAGA’ synapomorphy (‘a trait that is shared by two or more taxa and their most recent common ancestor, whose own ancestor in turn does not possess the trait’), which separates it from other genera in the group. The new genus is named in honour of Lady Gaga ‘for her articulate and fervent defense of equality and individual expression in today’s society’. The resultant reassignment of existing species to the new genus accounts for 17 of the 19 new Gaga species; the other two are newly-described ones: G. germanotta, named in honour of Lady Gaga’s parents, Cynthia and Joe Germanotta, and G. monstraparva, which honours Lady Gaga’s loyal fans, her ‘little monsters’. Furthermore, the official little monster greeting is apparently the outstretched ‘monster claw’ hand, which bears a striking resemblance to a tightly inrolled young fern leaf prior to unfurling. And, in this post-Melbourne Code new age, the new species are described in English – not fuddy-duddy, archaic Latin! How cool is that? And, if you think all ferns are alike (as for grasses…?), and a difficult group to ‘get into’, then look at Li et al.’s Fig. 4, which shows remarkable differences between several Gaga species. Could this combination of topicality and comparative ease of identification be the plant group to entice youngsters (whether they be little monsters or otherwise) to the joys of (plant) taxonomy (for such new blood is desperately needed if we are to get to grips with global biological diversity – e.g. Peter Rüegg, Winston Tarere,  James Morgan)? Maybe, but I’m still not sure how to interpret the expression on the face of ‘Graduate Student Fay-Wei Li at the moment he discovered Gaga germanotta alive in Costa Rica’. Anyway, should your interest in other scientific names based on people have now been piqued, I can thoroughly recommend Mark Isaak’s entertaining site at Who said taxonomists are a boring lot?

About the author

Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.