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Duck-Billed Platypus

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first Harry Potter novel, was published way back in 1997, but names from the series are still appearing in unexpected places. In fact, several newly discovered animals have been named after characters from the books. Before we look at some of these Harry Potter-inspired names, let’s (quickly!) look at the rules that scientists follow when they name organisms.

Every year, up to 20,000 new types of living things (or organisms) are discovered, and they all need to be carefully categorised into groups and given scientific names so that scientists can study them. Scientific names are always made up of two Latin words, a system introduced by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. The first word sorts the organism into a relatively broad group called the genus. The second word represents the species, which is a smaller group within the genus.

Let’s look at an example. There are several types of wasps that use cockroaches to feed their young, and we group these wasps under the Ampulex genus. But did you know that Ampulex wasps are then divided up into species according to the different ways they attack cockroaches?

The latest of these wasps to be discovered has been named Ampulex dementor (often abbreviated as A. dementor) after the soul-sucking magical beings in the Harry Potter books. The female wasp lands on a cockroach and injects a poison into its head. This causes the cockroach to lose its own free will – it follows its attacker meekly back to the wasp’s burrow, where the wasp then lays an egg inside the cockroach’s body! The cockroach’s living body protects the egg until it hatches, and the baby wasp then feeds upon the cockroach until it can survive on its own.

Fans of Harry Potter might be able to recognise part of this process. Dementors, the magical guards of the wizarding prison of Azkaban, are known for their cruel “kiss”, in which they suck the soul out of a human being. They don’t actually kill the human – but without a soul, the human becomes a kind of living shell, unable to function for itself any more. The victim roach, once poisoned, becomes a similar living shell.

Usually, newly discovered species fit under a genus type that scientists have already named. This was what happened with the A. dementor – it was clear that the dementor wasp fit neatly into the Ampulex genus because it targeted cockroaches to feed its young. However, when scientists in the United States discovered a new type of dinosaur in the early 2000s, they realised it didn’t fit into any genus that they already knew of – so they got to invent a name for a new genus too! They thought it had a skull quite like a dragon’s, and settled on naming the dinosaur Dracorex hogwartsia, which means “The dragon king of Hogwarts”.

These species are far from the only ones to have had their names inspired by JK Rowling’s magical kingdom. A secretive crab was named after Professor Snape, and a spider was named after Godric Gryffindor because it looked remarkably like the wizard’s famous sorting hat.

If you happened to be lucky enough to discover a new species, who or what would you name it after?

Watch Duck-Billed Platypus to learn about a species that’s so difficult to classify that the first people to discover it thought it was a prank!