President Obama may not have won many Southeastern states in his recent re-election, but he did make waves across the Republican-leaning region. And thanks to two scientists from Georgia and Missouri, his Southern profile is still growing — although some of his flashiest new acolytes don't have a clue who he is.
That's because they're fish, one of five new species found by ecologist Steve Layman of Geosyntec Consultants and biologist Rick Mayden of Saint Louis University. All five are darters, a small, speedy perch living in rivers and creeks around North America. Nearly 200 species are known to science, from the abundant rainbow darter to more obscure varieties that exist only in a single stream. The males' colorful stripes, spots and speckles form distinctive patterns that help scientists identify species.
The researchers decided to name each of the newfound darters after a U.S. president or vice president with environmental cred, and the first name on their list was Obama. Thus, the spangled darter — a 2-inch Tennessee native whose males have vivid orange, blue and green scales — will be Etheostoma obama from now on. As Layman and Mayden tell Scientific American, Obama earned the honor by taking a more holistic approach to ecological issues than most of his predecessors.
"We chose President Obama for his environmental leadership, particularly in the areas of clean energy and environmental protection, and because he is one of our first leaders to approach conservation and environmental protection from a more global vision," the researchers said. Aside from Obama, Layman and Mayden named the other darters after three presidents and a VP who are also known for making conservation a priority: Theodore Roosevelt (Etheostoma teddyroosevelt), Jimmy Carter (E. jimmycarter), Bill Clinton (E. clinton) and Al Gore (E. gore).
None of the new fish are thought to be endangered, but darters' small habitats often provide little buffer against ecological changes. E. obama, for example, seems to live mainly on two rivers in Tennessee, and while its population may be healthy now, it could be threatened by anything from leaking gas or coal ash to a drought, flood, or fertilizer runoff. Still, Layman reassures Scientific American there's "currently no concern about the population numbers in the wild of these five new species."
As rare of an honor as it is to become the eponym for an entire species, this isn't Obama's first taxonomic rodeo. In 2009, his name was also bestowed to a previously unknown species of lichen. "I named it Caloplaca obamae to show my appreciation for the president's support of science and science education," researcher Kerry Knudsen of University of California-Riverside said in a press release at the time.