Naming the Gaga Fern

Gaga specimen

How did a fern genus come to be named for Lady Gaga?

Duke biologists deciphering evolutionary relationships across a worldwide group of desert ferns have completed years of examining herbarium specimens, doing fieldwork, and analyzing DNA sequence data. The family tree for these ferns is finally taking shape and one big discovery is that the fern genus name Cheilanthes––in use since 1806––has been incorrectly applied to a huge number of species that are not even closely related to “true” Cheilanthes. Therefore several species groups needed a new genus name as a result of these findings.

At her 2010 Grammy Awards performance, Lady Gaga wore a bodysuit from the Armani Privé collection that had an uncanny resemblance to a fern gametophyte - the sexual phase of the fern’s life cycle. When a fern spore germinates, it develops into a bisexual, heart-shaped organism that bears both male and female sex organs. Duke scientists honored Lady Gaga with the scientific namesake––Gaga––to celebrate the struggle to understand the intricate biology underlying cryptic patterns of biodiversity.

In the DNA of one of the gene sequences analyzed for this study, the nucleotide bases G-A-G-A line up perfectly at one location as a unique molecular signature for the Gaga ferns. This distinguishing characteristic was not observed in the closest relatives to Gaga.

In October 2012, the genus name Gaga was published for this group of ferns. It includes 19 species, two of which are new to science. It was named in honor of Lady Gaga and her Born This Way Foundation, in support of her voice as a champion for a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated. Scientists from various fields have often looked to popular culture for inspiration and have sometimes immortalized their favorite musicians, artists, and writers with scientific names.

Botanical Treasures from Duke's Hidden Library

April 10, 2013-July 14, 2013

Perkins Gallery,Duke University Library, Durham, NC

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