Stir It Up: Naming of Caribbean Reef Parasite Creates Controversy

This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

In July 2012, marine biologist Paul Sikkel of Arkansas State University announced he had discovered a new coral reef crustacean, which he had named Gnathia marleyi, after the late Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley. The news kicked off a media storm — drawing worldwide coverage from outlets including CBS News, the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, Fox News, NPR, the BBC and AFP. The story generated so much public interest (a rarity for taxonomy news), that it spawned a question on Jeopardy. Even People magazine named the discovery one of 2012's most intriguing things.

Most of the coverage was, to Sikkel's delight, positive. After all, Sikkel had named the "true natural wonder" for Marley because of his respect and admiration for Marley's music. Plus, he says, "Gnathia marleyi is as uniquely Caribbean as was Marley."

Parasites warrant our awe and deference, says Sikkel. They are among the most successful creatures on Earth — "biological champions" vital to coral reef ecology. In fact, parasites account for the majority of inhabitants of coral reefs, which are the world's most diverse ecosystems.

But, proving that beauty is in the mind of the beholder, some Marley fans objected to the association between Marley and his marine namesake. Why? Biological wonder though it may be, Gnathia marleyi is also a blood-sucking parasite. To detractors, this suggests a gamut of unflattering connotations.

The controversy over Gnathia marleyi has provided Sikkel with eye-opening perspectives. In the videos below, Sikkel talks with Amlak Tafari, the bassist for the Grammy-winning reggae band Steel Pulse and a self-described amBASSador, about naming Gnathia marleyi after Marley, the resulting controversy, the ecological importance of coral reefs and how both men are using the arts to educate people about scientific issues, including coral reef ecology.

More information:

  • An NSF article and interview about how species are named is here.
  • A profile of Sikkel is here.
  • An article about Sikkel's research on the importance of parasites to coral reefs is here.
  • An article about Sikkel's lively, creative teaching style (which incorporates Jimmy Buffet music) is here.
  • Paul Sikkel's website is here.

Editor's Note: Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Research in Action archive.

National Science Foundation