Zoology: Hitler beetle and Mussolini butterfly – are animals allowed to be called that?

Streets are being renamed, monuments are being removed and books are being reworded. A debate has also broken out in zoology: Should Hitler beetles and Mussolini butterflies be given new names?

It is only five millimeters long and lives hidden in caves. Although many experts have never seen the beetle, it still excites people.

The reason is its scientific name: Anophthalmus hitleri. The brown, eyeless beetle was named after Adolf Hitler – and is highly sought after by certain collectors because of its name. Another bone of contention is on display in the Natural History Museum in Berlin: the dinosaur Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki, named after Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who was involved in atrocities in Africa as a commander of the German colonial army.

There are several examples like this. Most of them are animals that were scientifically described a long time ago. But can we accept this in times when streets are being renamed, monuments are being torn down and language is being thought about critically in general? Even in the scientific community, controversial animal names are being discussed. But nothing is likely to change any time soon. What you need to know:

How are animals named scientifically?

Every year, thousands of new animal species are described worldwide. How taxonomists should proceed is laid down in the international rules for zoological nomenclature. The nomenclature does not specify any content, says zoology professor Michael Ohl from the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. Researchers can choose the names freely, as long as they are formed in a technically correct manner. “These are valid as soon as they are published and cannot then be deleted.”

There is a long tradition of naming newly discovered animal species after people – to flatter a generous donor, to honor family or friends, or to attract attention with the help of prominent namesakes, as Ohl writes in his book “The Art of Naming”. For example, a species of millipede bears the name of pop star Taylor Swift, beetles are named after the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the climate protection activist Greta Thunberg, and a species of moth is reminiscent of former US President Donald Trump.

Which names, among others, are viewed critically?

The example of the Hitler beetle and a moth named after the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini shows particularly clearly that naming after people can become a problem. What if a politician drifts into extremist circles or a film star is on trial for sexual assault? According to some scientists, species names can also be discriminatory or racist.

Paleobiologist Emma Dunne from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, together with other experts, has examined the names of all known dinosaurs – around 1,500. The scientist does not want to discuss the results of the study before publication. According to a report in the journal “Nature”, the team found, among other things, that many fossils discovered in Tanzania between 1908 and 1920 were named after German researchers rather than local expedition members, or the names were derived from colonial place names. The majority of the names with a gender-specific ending were also male.

How big is the problem?

According to an estimate by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature – the body that issues the rules for naming – around 20 percent of animal names are so-called eponyms. These are names that are meant to honor people. These are therefore the largest group of names that could cause offense, the commission writes in a statement. Toponyms, i.e. place names, could also be perceived as offensive. They make up around 10 percent of the names. “This could call several hundred thousand accepted scientific names into question,” it says.

The researchers assessed less than three percent of dinosaur names as problematic. In numerical terms, the problem is really insignificant, explains co-author Evangelos Vlachos from the Palaeontological Museum in Trelew, Argentina, in the “Nature” report. Nevertheless, it is of great relevance: we must critically examine the current practice and try to correct mistakes, he says.

What does the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature say about this?

The commission rejects the renaming of animals for ethical reasons. “We understand, of course, that some names can cause discomfort or offense,” says taxonomist Daniel Whitmore from the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, who is a member of the commission. However, the priority is to have a universal and stable nomenclature so that there is no confusion. “It is not our job to judge whether names are offensive or ethically unacceptable, because that is a very subjective and personal matter,” he adds. “So it would be difficult to make a decision that everyone is happy with.”

Berlin zoologist Ohl can understand that it is currently not possible to rename animal species according to the nomenclature rules. “The commission does not want to do this without further ado because it does not know how it has to be implemented in detail in order to create clarity – and because it is afraid of opening Pandora's box,” he says. But the commission must deal with this and find criteria for how to best deal with ethically questionable names. “The pressure from society and the scientific community is great.”

Is the discussion influenced by the West?

Taxonomist Rohan Pethiyagoda from Sri Lanka thinks so. If animal species were to be renamed, he believes that this would distract researchers like him from their actual task of describing the Earth's biological diversity. Instead, they would have to deal with topics that are not relevant in countries like Sri Lanka, writes Pethiyagoda in the journal “Megataxa”. He does not think it makes sense to change scientific names: according to him, most species have everyday names, and scientific names are usually only used by experts.

Whitmore also thinks that the discussion does not concern the general public. If scientific names are to be changed, an application can be submitted to the commission, which then decides in a lengthy decision-making process involving the scientific community, as the expert explains. Such applications have been made, for example, when names were technically incorrect. “But so far no one has applied to change a name for ethical reasons.” Not even for Anophthalmus hitleri.

Is there another solution?

“In a case like the Hitler Beetle, a name change wouldn't change much,” says Ohl. The name would not disappear completely. Animals often have several scientific names, so in a kind of catalog they are all listed under the current name. Anyone who wants to collect the Hitler Beetle because of the name will continue to do so, says Ohl.

One way to critically examine controversial animal names would be, for example, to address their history in museums to encourage people to think about it. The Berlin Natural History Museum has already done this with Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki. “Unfortunately, the strict rules of taxonomy rule out any later changes to species names once they have been assigned,” says a display board.