Jan. 6, 2012 at 5:35 PM ET
When word got around that scientists nicknamed a particularly hairy-chested kind of deep-sea crab after "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff, "The Hoff" didn't get huffy. Instead, he proudly tweeted the news to his 358,000 Twitter followers. The Southern Ocean's "Hoff crabs" are just the latest critters to get celebrity nicknames.
The saga of Hasselhoff's crabs came out this week when researchers reported the discovery of a "lost world" in waters off the Antarctic coast in the journal PLoS Biology. Piles of white yeti crabs were found clumped around hydrothermal vents at the ocean's bottom, in an area known as the East Scotia Ridge.
Expedition leader Alex Rogers, a zoologist at Oxford University, said the crabs were notable because they had long hairs, or setae, covering their smooth undersides. "Their nickname on the cruise ship was the 'Hasselhoff crab,' which gives you some idea of what they look like," Rogers told the BBC.
Rogers was clearly referring to the hairy-chested look that Hasselhoff sported when he portrayed a beefcake lifeguard on the '90s TV series "Baywatch." Hasselhoff, now 59, has had his ups and downs in recent years, but he saw the story of the Hoff crabs as one of the ups. "Check this out!" he said in a Twitter tweet pointing to the BBC story and bearing the hashtag "Got Hoff Crabs." He even urged one of his followers to retweet the news.
Rogers and his colleagues still have to decide what the crabs' scientific Latin-derived species name will be. The crabs are part of the genus Kiwa, along with other types of yeti crabs, so Kiwa hasselhoffi is a possibility; however, Hasselhoff would be well-advised not to get his hopes up just yet.
"There are no plans to formally name the crab after David, but I am yet to discuss this with my colleagues," Rogers told me today in an email. "The species is distinct from Kiwa hirsuta and Kiwa puravida, and we are describing it at present. An alternative name that was being batted around was the wookie crab — again for obvious reasons. The Hoff stuck...."
I'm not aware that any species has so far been formally named after the Hoff — or after Wookiees, for that matter. But there have been plenty of celebrities honored with scientific species names, including an ant and a spider named after the guy who played Han Solo (Pheidole harrisonfordi and Calponia harrisonfordi, respectively), a beetle that looks as if it has Arnold Schwarzenegger's bulging biceps (Agra schwarzeneggeri), a bunny named after Playboy founder Hugh Hefner (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), a lichen named after President Barack Obama (Caloplaca obamae), and a beetle and spider named after talk-show comedian Stephen Colbert (Agaporomorphus colberti and Aptostichus stephencolberti).
Asteroids and other celestial bodies can provide celebrities with additional pieces of scientific immortality. There's no Asteroid Hasselhoff yet, but the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center lists Spielberg, Lancearmstrong, Tomhanks, Megryan and more. When astronomers found a world on the solar system's rim that was bigger than Pluto, they gave it the nickname Xena, in honor of the TV warrior princess. (It was later named after Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and strife.)
Whether or not those Southern Ocean crabs get the scientific name "Kiwa hasselhoffi," they'll probably end up being known informally as Hoff crabs from now on. But it's a delicate environment down there, so I wouldn't advise any celebrity junkets to the hydrothermal vents.
Come to think of it, that should be set down as one of the ironclad rules on the East Scotia Ridge: Don't hassle the Hoff crabs.
More about yeti crabs:
More about scientific names:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.