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Parasitologist bestows squirmy honor on his distant cousin, President Obama

Baracktrema obamai
Baracktrema obamai is a newly named turtle parasite. The scientist who discovered it named it after President Obama, who is his fifth cousin, twice removed.
(Journal of Parasitology)

How does a scientist honor a president who happens to be a distant relative? By naming a turtle parasite after him.

Baracktrema obamai isn’t just any parasite. It’s so distinctive that it represents not just a new species but an entirely new genus, according to a new report in the Journal of Parasitology. That hasn’t happened with this type of turtle parasite in 21 years, experts say.

B. obamai is a flatworm that infects black marsh turtles and southeast Asian box turtles in Malaysia. Scientists study turtle parasites because they are believed to be the ancestors of the flatworms that cause schistosomiasis, a disease that kills between 20,000 and 200,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization. 

It might be hard for most people to warm up to an organism that can cause so much suffering, but parasitologists are different. These scientists admire the way that parasites are able to make a living in the most foreboding environments. B. obamai, for instance, is able to penetrate the circulatory system of a turtle host and deposit dozens of eggs in the small blood vessels inside turtle lungs, according to the study.

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The newly discovered species was found by Thomas R. Platt, who spent decades studying turtle viruses before retiring recently from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. Over the course of his career, he said, he has named about half a dozen parasites after his friends, his graduate school advisor at the University of Alberta in Canada (Molenius samueli) and even his father-in-law (Neopolystoma fentoni).

The idea of naming a parasite after the 44th president of the United States came to Platt after he learned that he is the fifth cousin, twice removed, of Barack Obama, the study explained. Platt said their common relative was a man named George Frederick Toot, who lived in Middletown, Pa., from 1759 to 1815.  

This isn’t the first parasite to be named in Obama’s honor. In 2012, a team of researchers from the University of New Mexico, Oklahoma State University and the University of Hamburg in Germany christened a hairworm species Paragordius obamai because it was discovered about 12 miles from where the president’s father was raised in Kenya. P. obamai infects crickets, not humans, and is the first hairworm of its type known to reproduce asexually, according to a report in the journal PLOS One.

Scientists have also named a fish (Etheostoma obama), a trapdoor spider (Aptostichus barackobamai), a lichen species (Caloplaca obamae) and an extinct insect-eating lizard (Obamadon gracilis) after the current commander in chief.

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Platt explained why it’s so tempting to enshrine Obama’s name in the lexicon of living things.  

“It is a unique component of the diversity of life on this planet,” he said. “Anyone should consider it an honor.”

No word yet from the White House on how the human Barack Obama feels about the new honor. Platt said he intends to send his cousin a copy of the journal article.

Jackson Roberts, Raphael Orélis-Ribeiro and Stephen “Ash” Bullard of Auburn University’s Aquatic Parasitology Laboratory in Alabama were Platt’s coauthors of the new study.

karen.kaplan@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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UPDATES:

5:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Thomas R. Platt, the scientist who discovered Baracktrema obamai and selected its name.

This article was originally published at 1:55 p.m.


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