Call to rename Hitler beetle driven towards extinction by neo-Nazis

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  • Kevin Thiele
    Australian botanist (1959- )

Animals and plants whose names honour racists should be changed, according to two leading Australian scientists.

Over the last two years memorials to slave owners and slavery apologists have been in the firing line, resulting in the toppling of statues and the renaming of places.

Coon cheese even rebranded after accepting its name was a homonym for a deeply offensive slur.

A close up specimen showing Anophthalmus hitleri
A beetle (pictured) named after Adolph Hitler has been almost driven to extinction. Source: Michael Munich / Getty

Now two Australian botanists say it’s time for science to change its international rules and allow changes to names of species which honour monstrous historical figures. 

Taxonomists Dr Kevin Thiele and Dr Tim Hammer argue science cannot “exist on some ivory tower that’s disconnected from society” and it must move with the times.

"On some occasions, renaming species is the right thing to do," Dr Thiele told Yahoo News.

"It sends a powerful message that these issues are not just in the past."

Hitler beetle faces extinction due to unfortunate name

While the names of plants and animals can cause offence to humans, they can also impact the species itself.

One such example concerns a rare Slovenian cave beetle Anophthalmus hitleri which had the unfortunate circumstance of being named after Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Left - Beetles pinned to labels. Right - stuffed birds in a museum.
Species can be named after one of its features, or to honour an individual. Source: Getty

This century, reports suggest this tiny, blind insect has been pushed to the brink of extinction because neo-Nazis have been hunting them down to sell as memorabilia.

Attempts to rename the creature were rejected after World War II because the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) ruled it was named within its guidelines.

Australian species named after murderers and slave traders

Australia has its own contentious names, with Hibbertia, an entire genus of guinea flowers named after nineteenth century botany patron George Hibbert.

The businessman grew rich from the transatlantic slave trade and was a staunch opponent of abolition, with his views criticised as abhorrent even in his own time.

People toppling a statue in darkness.
Citizens in many western countries have removed statues of historical figures considered disreputable. Source: Reuters

The Great Barrier Reef is also sullied by a coral named after a disreputable historical figure.

Catalaphyllia jardinei honours Frank Jardine, a Scottish pioneer who was at the forefront of Indigenous dispossession across northern Australia.

While working as a police magistrate, he was responsible for the large-scale slaughter of Aboriginal people.

He also welcomed missionaries who arrived in Queensland to impose their Christian beliefs on Torres Strait Islanders.

Australian scientist set to call for vote on naming rules

Naming species is a formal process which results in international recognition and seperate naming codes, known as nomenclatures, exist for animals, plants and viruses.

Currently pathways do not exist to rename plants or animals named after dishonourable historical figures.

Moves are underway to change these guidelines for animal taxonomy, and Dr Thiele, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Western Australia and the director of Taxonomy Australia will be proposing similar changes in botany.

He and Dr Hammer will be taking this argument to the International Botanical Congress in 2024 which will be held in Madrid. 

Call for scientists to rethink celebrity naming trend

In Australia, only around 30 per cent species have been named.

When scientists are considering what to call their discovery, they can choose between honouring a person, or a detailing feature of the species.

Dr Thiele said he almost always does the latter, only making exceptions if a person has a deep connection to a particular plant.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, species were often named after rich patrons or benefactors who supported science.

Today, it’s more common for researchers to name their discoveries after celebrities, with two recent examples being brilliantly coloured flies named after singer Beyonce Knowles and drag queen RuPaul.

Dr Thiele acknowledges it’s important that scientists engage with the community, but given the longevity of taxonomic classifications, he's not certain celebrity names are always a good choice.

“The news is likely to pick it up if you name something after some famous pop star,” he said.

“That's good, because taxonomy needs to be in the news, as by documenting the species we are hopefully doing the foundational work that will prevent a species going extinct.

“But will anyone know who Beyonce is in a few hundred years?”

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