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Washington Scientist To Auction Naming Rights To New Plant Species

The winner of an eBay auction that begins this week will get the opportunity to name this new plant species.

The winner of an eBay auction that begins this week will get the opportunity to name this new plant species.

Mark Darrach

There’s a new plant species in Washington state, but it hasn’t been named yet. And the botanist who discovered it will auction off that opportunity this week.

A plant specimen collected near Leavenworth, Washington, has been sitting nameless in the basement of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum since 1989. 

“It’s an interesting plant, it’s a beautiful plant,” research botanist Mark Darrach said.

He didn’t discover the plant itself, but he did find the specimen to be both rare and new to science, something he’s become particularly skilled at, having named five other plants. 

“This is a really unusual plant for this genus. It’s quite large, it’s a couple feet tall. It has blue-grey fine foliage, with brassy yellow flowers,” Darrach said.

But naming a new species is expensive: It requires scientific illustrations, comparisons with other specimens, a scientific publication. That’s why Darrach is teaming up with Washington nonprofit Wild Society to auction off the naming rights on eBay. The bidding starts at $3,000.

An auction like this isn’t entirely novel. It happened recently with a species of lichen in British Columbia. But perhaps the most famous instance involved the Golden Palace Monkey, discovered in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. That auction raised $650,000. The naming rights were obtained by an online casino. 

Darrach said auctioning off naming rights is a good way to fund the effort, and get the public involved. He said it also highlights dwindling resources for science.

“Finding some funds to pay for this sort of work is important,” he said. “Of course, we’re in a biodiversity crisis worldwide right now and to not have enough money available to even describe new species is an untenable situation that needs to be changed.”

This particular new plant is in the genus Lomatium, of which there are about 120 species. It’s also known as the parsley family, which includes carrots, cilantro, fennel and dill. Darrach said this one in particular is so rare that it’s likely there are only about 1,000 plants of its kind on hillsides along the east Cascades. 

Forrest Nichols is the executive director of Wild Society and a mentee of Mark Darrach’s.

“Hopefully, we’ll see more of this going into the future,” Nichols said. “As funding really dries up for the sciences, especially field science … there’s a huge lack of trained people who can do [Darrach’s] sort of work.” 

Nichols said it’s not all about money. The aim is also to “drum up excitement” for the work of discovering new species. Nichols said Wild Society hopes to raise between $6,000 and $12,000 through the auction. 

“There’s accepted rules about how you name any new species,” he said. “The whole process is regulated and agreed upon among the community of botanists. Part of our auction is that whoever wins that opportunity will work with Mark to follow all those rules and guidelines.”

The auction will remain open on eBay for 10 days, from Nov. 21 until Dec. 1. The highest bidder not only gets to name the plant, they’ll also get a hand-drawn illustration and a guided tour in the plant’s habitat. 

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