When President Trump announced his plan to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement last year, he said he was benching the United States in the global fight against climate change because he wanted the rest of the world to stop “laughing at us.”
“We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore, and they won’t be,” Trump vowed from a podium in the White House Rose Garden in June 2017. “They won’t be.”
But the name of a newly discovered amphibian species reveals just how hearty a laugh critics of the president abroad are having at his expense — and on the very issue he cited as he promised to protect American dignity.
EnviroBuild, a London-based sustainable building materials company, saw a resemblance between the serpentine creature, which is nearly blind and burrows underground, and Trump, who has called the evidence of global warming a “hoax.” EnviroBuild, which paid $25,000 for the naming rights at an auction this month, said on Tuesday that it chose “Dermophis donaldtrumpi” in recognition of the president’s position on climate change. The announcement came on the heels of a weekend agreement by climate negotiators in Poland on the rules for implementing the Paris pact, which Trump considers counter to U.S. interests.
The naming choice highlights the president’s dismal approval ratings worldwide and is clearly designed to belittle him. And yet, it is further evidence that so much now revolves around Trump, from “Matilda” statues to Barbra Streisand torch songs, as the former reality TV star has become a ubiquitous global symbol. His name is everywhere, from skylines to golf courses to magazines to songs to subreddits to a restaurant in Iraq. On Wikipedia, there is a list of things named after Donald Trump. Does it matter whether the individual items are favorable so long as the list keeps growing?
Still, the symbolism invoked by the British company, whose stunt gave the list its newest entry, has a more serious message. It is meant to call attention to the dire, real-world consequences of Trump’s refusal to recognize environmental catastrophe, which scientists say could arrive as early as 2040.
“Realizing the similarities between the amazing but unknown creature and the leader of the free world, we couldn’t resist buying the rights in your president’s honor,” Aidan Bell, EnviroBuild’s co-founder, told The Washington Post. The firm added a mop of blond hair to an image of an amphibian in the same family as the wormlike species to emphasize the visual likeness.
As an amphibian, the company noted in a news release, the Dermophis donaldtrumpi is especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of climate change and is “therefore in danger of becoming extinct as a direct result of its namesake’s climate policies.”
The naming rights went up for sale Dec. 8 at a “Species Legacy Auction” sponsored by Rainforest Trust, a Virginia-based conservation nonprofit organization that called the event “the largest species-naming auction in history.” The privilege of naming the “unusual wormlike” species, the trust said, drew the highest bid of any item in the auction, the proceeds of which benefited wildlife conservation.
“We saw this under-loved amphibian and thought we could make some fairly cheap jokes about a public figure crawling on their belly,” Bell said. Despairing that the results of climate talks in Poland were insufficiently bold, and realizing that singling out a British figure “would risk hurting our sales too much,” he explained, “we decided Trump was the answer.”
EnviroBuild acknowledged that the authority to name a new species is typically reserved for biologists. Bell noted that the title would have to undergo peer review, according to standards governing zoological nomenclature. But these rules have allowed for significant creative leeway, often to honor famous people. Former president George W. Bush, former vice president Richard B. Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld all have beetles named for them. Beyonce’s name graces a horse fly. A tree frog shares a name with Prince Charles.
The Dermophis donaldtrumpi measures 10 centimeters (nearly four inches) in length, according to EnviroBuild. It belongs to a group of limbless amphibians called caecilians. Rainforest Trust said the remittance for the naming rights will go to protecting the creature’s home in Panama, where scientists recently discovered it.
In the news release, Bell outlined why the name is appropriate. He footnoted his analysis elaborately. Among his sources were Trump tweets and official climate reports.
The amphibian’s “rudimentary eyes,” Bell wrote, can perceive only light or dark. “Capable of seeing the world only in black and white, Donald Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax by the Chinese,” he noted. He also observed that the title “Caecilian” derives from the Latin caecus, meaning “blind."
The Dermophis grouping grows an extra layer of skin, he explained, which their offspring peel off with their teeth and eat. To ensure that his children “survive in life,” Bell observed, “Donald Trump prefers granting them high roles in the Oval Office.”
The wormlike animals live mostly underground, “believed to have lost their limbs at least 60 million years ago, as an adaptation to burrowing,” Bell explained. Burying his “head underground,” he added, “helps Donald Trump when avoiding scientific consensus on anthropomorphic climate change,” as well as appointing “several energy lobbyists to the Environment Agency, where their job is to regulate the energy industry.”
A sensory power in their tentacles helps caecilians find prey, a capacity that Bell likened — straining the metaphor a bit — to the many tentacles of the investigation being pursued by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Trump takedown if it didn’t involve the size of his hands and the hue of his skin, although on this final point, Bell left the comparison unstated.
“Being entirely limbless it is hard to determine whether caecilians have proportionate hands and their shiny skin is ringed with skin folds called annuli, generally grey, but with other genus’ often displaying more colour, even orange,” he wrote.
The Dermophis donaldtrumpi is not alone among creatures bearing Trump’s name.
Just before the president’s inauguration last year, an article in the journal ZooKeys dubbed a blond-haired moth the “Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.”
“The new species is named in honor of Donald J. Trump, to be installed as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017,” wrote the author, Vazrick Nazari, an evolutionary biologist in Ottawa. “The reason for this choice of name is to bring wider public attention to the need to continue protecting fragile habitats in the US that still contain many undescribed species.”
He also offered this specific rationale for the label: “The specific epithet is selected because of the resemblance of the scales on the frons (head) of the moth to Mr. Trump’s hairstyle.”
In another case, however, the naming is in fact meant as a tribute to Trump.
In 2016, a restaurant owner, fossil hunter and author identified a new species of fossil sea urchins near Canyon Lake, in the San Antonio area. William Thompson told the San Antonio Express-News that he had chosen to name the species after Trump, his favored presidential candidate.
The small, round fossil, he told the newspaper, “was named to honor Donald Trump. The name will become a permanent part of the scientific record.” He added: “Obviously, I’m probably voting for him. I want change. . . . I’d love for him to change the world, or at least the politics of the United States."
A physical resemblance to Trump appeared not to factor into his decision.