YOU may not have heard of the McCown’s longspur, a bird named after a Confederacy officer who defended slavery and battled Native American tribes, or Hitler’s beetle, or the entire genus of flowers Hibbertia, named after George Hibbert, who also happened to have made significant wealth from the transatlantic slave trade, but it is species like these that are part of a controversy sweeping the world. What started in the United States as a campaign against honorific bird names is now setting the world of taxonomy on fire.

Hang on, there is not actually a Hitler’s beetle?

There is: the rare Slovenian cave beetle known as Anophthalmus hitleri, and the problem is not just that it is named after a man responsible for one of the greatest atrocities in human history, but that Nazi memorabilia enthusiasts have driven it close to extinction.

What other names are being targeted?

Chiefly, so far, it’s been historical figures who were slave owners, slave traders, anti-abolitionists or guilty of wrongs against indigenous peoples.The Bird Names For Birds campaign has been publishing biographies of people after whom whom birds are named. They include Townsend’s solitaire, named after John Kirk Townsend, a naturalist who stole human remains from graves of Native Americans. And, while this is not a bird naming issue, it's worth noting the Audubon Naturalist Society has already renamed itself, on the grounds that painter and naturalist John James Audubon was a slave owner.

Sounds a bit like the whole toppling statues issue ..

Indeed. Many, including Tim Hammer, a taxonomist at University of Adelaide and State Herbarium of South Australia, are comparing the two.

Hammer, who is campaigning for changes to be made to the international code of nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants, has said: “Just like statues, buildings, and street or suburb names, we think a reckoning is due for scientific species names that honour people who held views or acted in ways that are deeply dishonourable, highly problematic or truly egregious by modern standards.”

In fact, should we be naming plants and animals after people at all?

Exactly the point of Bird Names For Birds. The naming of species after those who supposedly first “discovered” them, or as a kind of honour, seems in itself to belong to a colonial time, and an appropriative attitude towards nature.

Better, surely, just to name them by one of their more distinctive features, which is what the campaign had suggested, when it asked for the McCown longspur to be renamed the thick-billed longspur – which, last year, it was.


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