DANIA BEACH, Fla. — The clock is ticking, and here's the conundrum: What holiday gift do you buy for the person who has everything?
Charles Messing, a marine biologist at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, has just the thing: an entire species of sea lily. If you make the winning bid in an online auction, you — or the person you designate — will get the right to name the species that Messing discovered.
Messing found the new type of sea lily in July 2009, while he was on a mission half a mile below the surface of Bahamian waters. He was expert enough to know it was new from his first glimpse — but just how new and different took quite a while, and required a thorough examination.
Sea lilies are crinoids (pronounced "CRY-noids"). That’s one of the five classes of echinoderms, the branch of animal life that includes the sea stars and sea urchins. As an expert on the group, Messing has the background required for naming a new crinoid species when it's discovered.
Whatever the type of creature — crinoid, bird or plant — new species are typically named either after a distinguishing feature; or after the place where it was found; or after somebody, often either the person who collected it or another scientist in the field. Messing has had several different marine animals named after him, including a crab, a limpet, a small shrimp, a worm and another crinoid.
So you might think that this new sea lily would end up being given a scientific name that translates into "Charles Messing's Sea Lily."
But because Messing is the describer, it's not the "done thing" to name the species after himself. So, understanding that there are people out there who are on a desperate mission to find just the right gift, and also living in a world where research dollars are limited, Messing decided to open the naming rights to his discovery.
"I figured I already have a few marine animals named after me, so why not spread the joy," Messing said with a grin. "We've seen all sorts of stuff auctioned off on eBay, but I'm not sure anything like this has been offered. After all, there aren't many gifts you can give that will go on well after your time on earth. Your name will be immortalized in scientific publications forever."
You may never see one of these lilies, since they dwell so deep below the surface, but you can be sure of one thing: If you win the rights and name the new species after your loved one, scientists around the world will be talking about him or her at conferences for years to come.
Plus, does a Prada bag or a Hermes scarf really bring such smiles as this?
The successful donor will receive acknowledgment of the source of the name in a scientific publication describing the species, copies of the publication, and a framed and matted composite piece including a photographic print of the animal as well as one of Messing's original pen-and-ink illustrations for the paper.
Messing said proceeds from the sale will help support research expeditions around the world as well as graduate student research at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center. The starting bid is $4,000, and the auction ends on Dec. 22 — just in time for Christmas.
Update for 5:40 p.m. ET Dec. 22: The winning bid came in at $6,150. When we find out the sea lily's new scientific name, we'll pass that along in another follow-up.