Not all Fantastic Beasts are Fictional

hpspiderIt seems appropriate that this paper should be released at this season of renewed interest in JK Rowling’s magical creatures. A pair of Potter-loving scientists from India recently discovered a new species of spider, and, upon noticing its resemblance to the Sorting Hat, named it Eriovixia gryffindori. Even better, they provided a explanation of the name in the scientific paper that described the beastie.

harry_potter_sorting_hat_by_boywizard94-d5ma8izThis uniquely shaped spider derives its name from the fabulous, sentient magical artifact, the sorting hat, owned by the (fictitious) medieval wizard Godric Gryffindor, one of the four founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and stemming from the powerful imagination of Ms. J.K. Rowling, wordsmith extraordinaire, as presented in her beloved series of books, featuring everyone’s favorite boy-wizard, Harry Potter. An ode from the authors, for magic lost, and found, in an effort to draw attention to the fascinating, but oft overlooked world of invertebrates, and their secret lives.

11isbs_wasp_1944656fThe Indian team is not the first to draw inspiration from the Harry Potter series when it comes to naming real-life fantastic beasts. In 2014, another team of scientists allowed museum visitors to vote on the name of a new species of “soul-sucking” wasp.  One of the choices–the winning one– was Ampulex dementor, after the wasp’s nasty habit of injecting the cockroaches it preys upon with a neurotoxin, turning the unfortunate bug into a “zombie.”  The brain-addled roach follows the predator wasp back to its nest, where it becomes a living cradle– and eventually dinner– for the next generation of wasp eggs, as the larvae fed on the roach corpse as they mature. Personally, that predatory technique sounds more like the Imperious curse than a Dementor to me, but Ampulex imperio wasn’t one of the choices.

dracorexdisplay_smallPrehistoric critters have also received Potter-inspired names. In 2006, researchers named a putative new dinosaur species Dracorex hogwartsia, meaning “dragon king of Hogwarts”– appropriate for a fossil that was originally extracted in front of thousands of children in an exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.   However, more recent studies have suggested that the Dragon King may be a juvenile of an already-described species, meaning the magical name may not be officially adopted. Nonetheless, this is a nice example of how Pottermania can be used to engage children with the scientific process.

albus-dumbledore-black-and-white-choices-dumbledore-favim-com-633722-jpgAnd, just so you know, psychologists are not letting biologists have all the fun when it comes to adopting Potterisms into their nomenclature. In 2007, psychologist Stine-Morrow published a paper about the capacity of choosing to engage in cognitively-challenging activities to offset age-related mental decline. Using the illustration of Harry choosing Gryffindor over Slytherin at his Sorting Hat ceremony, she called her model  “the Dumbledore hypothesis,” because it stressed that the choice to repeatedly challenge oneself may override the cultural expectation that senior citizens are destined to slow down mentally.  Dr. Stine-Morrow would presumably approve of a 50+ Potter Pundit going back to school for a PhD.

url-3In another example from 2009,  Nelissen and Zeelenberg performed a pair of experiments in which they induced guilt in their participants, then set up an opportunity for self-punishment. They found that people who felt guilty were more likely to punish themselves, but only if there were no other way of compensating the person they had wronged. The researchers called this phenomenon “the Dobby effect.”  Thankfully, the self-punishments were theoretical and painless, involving either questionnaires about whether a person should take a vacation, or the exchange of points in an economic game. Hand-ironing would presumably not have gotten past the research ethics board’s protocol review. Nonetheless, the study of self-punishment in the lab can lead to better understanding of how social bonds are damaged and repaired. As the authors state,

The Dobby effect then, is a public sign of reconciliation that occurs if actual reconciliation (by compensating the victim) is impossible. Alternatively, self-punishment may serve a self-affirmation function, by which individuals restore their self- image after violating personal standards. Indeed, people seem to have a desire to wash away their sins after threats to their moral identity.

As a professor, I have often relied on the shared text of Harry Potter to make topics more accessible to students.  I find it fascinating that scientific researchers are increasingly doing so, not only in the classroom but also in professional, peer-reviewed publications.

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