Opaulma rupaul, the fly named after drag queen RuPaul

The fly, named after RuPaul, is found in south east Queensland in Australia. © Bryan Lessard/CSIRO

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Fabulous new rainbow fly with 'legs for days' named after drag icon RuPaul

Australian scientists are persevering in their quest to 'catch 'em all' as they name new species after pop culture icons.

Three new species of beetle have been named after a trio of legendary Pokémon - Articuno, Moltres and Zapdos -  while another is named another Japanese TV franchise Digimon.

Meanwhile, there's no shade being cast on drag star RuPaul who has had a fabulous new species of soldier fly named after her.

While the names may seem whimsical at first, scientists hope they will draw public, political and media attention to the species, many of which have been affected by devastating Australian bushfires in the past couple of years.

Naming a fly after someone could be seen as insulting, but this is not the intent of Opaluma rupaul. The researchers were inspired by the beautiful iridescent colours of the fly and its long legs to name it after the drag icon RuPaul.

Dr Bryan Lessard, who named the fly, told The Guardian that the choice of name was an 'obvious decision'. 

'I was watching a lot of RuPaul's Drag Race while examining the species and I know it would challenge RuPaul on the runway serving fierce looks,' said Bryan. 

'It has a costume of shiny metallic rainbow colours, and it has legs for days. I think once Ru sees the fly she'll realise it's quite fierce and hopefully appreciate the name.'

Its characteristics are also recognised in its genus name, Opaulma, which is newly created for this species and the others named by Bryan. Its name is derived from the Latin for opal and thorn, recognising the individual species' bright colours and a distinctive thorn on their underside.

While a fly may not seem like the most complementary of species to honour someone with, without these insects the wider ecosystem would be badly impacted. 

'Soldier flies are valuable in the ecosystem,' Bryan says. 'The larvae recycle nutrients from dead plants and animals, while adults are pollinators of some Australian plants.' 

RuPaul with her Hollywood star

The fly was named in recognition of RuPaul's bright outfits and long legs. © Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

And the category is: new species

These species are not the first to be named after famous faces or celebrated characters.

Dr Erica McAlister, the Senior Curator of flies at the Museum, says, 'There are many reasons to name a species after something or someone famous. If there's an obvious physical trait they have that links with the animal then it can be a helpful diagnostic tool in some ways.'

Bryan has previous form, having named another species of fly after music queen Beyoncé. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a species of beetle (Agra schwarzeneggeri) named after him in recognition of their shared muscular appearance.  

In the world of pop culture, Eoperipatus Totoros is a velvet worm named for its similarity in appearance to the Catbus in the film My Neighbour Totoro, while Spongiforma squarepantsii is a mushroom named after (you've guessed it!) Bikini Bottom's most famous resident.  

However, decisions to give species famous names can be frowned upon in some quarters, with some arguing that such names may not be as helpful in the future when their namesakes are no longer widely known. Erica, however, disagrees.

'We're dealing with so many species, and they have to be named something,' she says. 'We don't advocate it all the time, but it can do a lot of good.

'A lot of people name species in honour of other people for their achievements. I've recently named species after the women who helped organise fieldwork for me. It's a great piece of respect.' 

L-R: Binburrum articuno, B. moltres and B. zapdos, named after Pokémon

L-R: Binburrum articuno, B. moltres and B. zapdos are three hard-to-find beetles are named after three hard-to-find Pokémon © CSIRO

Fly tonight

Bringing attention to new Australian species is even more important in light of recent bushfires, which burnt an area of the country around twice the size of Ireland between 2019 and 2020. 

Nine of the 13 new species are from areas affected by these fires, and are among many yet to be identified. Giving them names that help them stand out is hoped to bring the little-known insects to the attention of policymakers involved in the recovery of these areas.

'You only have to look to see the massive amount of publicity that has been generated for these insects by giving them these names,' Erica says. 'Typically, conservation funding often goes to charismatic megafauna, but now there's so much interest in these soldier flies, which aren't as well-liked.' 

The flies are among 150 species in the past year described by Australia's national science agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), but are a drop in the ocean compared to those yet to be found. A report from earlier this year estimated that 70% of the 750,000 species expected to live in Australia are currently unknown to science.

At the current rate of discovery, it would take hundreds of years to find all these species, by which time many may already have disappeared. 

'We don't really know what's there until we name it,' Erica says. 'Naming a species is the first step for us to help realise what's going on, and piece together their life history. This is massively important when it comes to conservation.'

To start to find these missing species, the Australian Academy of Science has launched a mission to use technologies such as genome sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputers to help speed up the search. 

In the meantime, shantay Opaluma rupaul, you stay.