The Fight Over Animal Names Has Reached a New Extreme
Forget changing only the names that honor the horrors of the past. Some biologists now argue no species should ever be named after a single individual.
Updated at 6:36 p.m. on May 26, 2023
Stephen Hampton has been watching birds for more than 50 years, and for almost all of that time, he thought nothing of names like Townsend’s warbler or Anna’s hummingbird: “They were just the names in the bird book that you grow up with,” he told me. Then, a few years ago, Hampton realized how Scott’s oriole—a beautiful black-and-yellow bird—got its name.
Darius Couch, a U.S. Army officer and amateur naturalist, named the oriole in 1854 after his commander, General Winfield Scott. Sixteen years earlier, Scott dutifully began a government campaign of ethnic cleansing to remove the Cherokee people from their homelands in the Southeastern United States. His soldiers rounded up Cherokee, separated their families, looted their homes, and crammed them into stockades and barges, where many of them died. Thousands of Cherokee, including Hampton’s great-great-grandfather and dozens more of his ancestors, were forced to move west along the Trail of Tears. Scott’s oriole is a monument to a man who oversaw the dispossession of Hampton’s family, and saying its name now “hits me in the gut, takes my breath away,” Hampton, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in 2021.
The common names of almost 150 North American birds are eponyms—that is, they derive from people. A disproportionate number of these names were assigned in the early 19th century by the soldier-scientists who traveled westward across the U.S. Bestowing eponyms to honor commanders, benefactors, family members, and one another, they turned the continent’s avifauna into tributes to “conquest and colonization,” as Hampton wrote. Many birders are now pushing to remove these eponyms, arguing that too many of them tie nature’s beauty and the pure joy of seeing a new species to humanity’s worst grotesqueries. “I didn’t ask for any of this information; I was just trying to bird,” Tykee James, the president of D.C. Audubon Society, told me. But now “we should do better because we know better—that’s the scientific process.”
Similar sentiments have spread in other countries and animal groups. Many animals whose names had included ethnic and racial slurs now have new names, including a moth in North America and several birds in Sweden and South Africa. In the U.S., at least one bird with an eponym has been renamed, and the American Ornithological Society is developing a process for renaming more.
These discussions have pushed many biologists and wildlife enthusiasts to reconsider the very act of naming—the people who get to do it, and the responsibilities they ought to shoulder. Whether common ones such as giraffe or scientific ones such as Giraffa camelopardalis, names act first as labels, allowing people to identify and classify living things. But names are also value-laden, reflecting the worldviews of the people who choose them. And some have come to believe that honoring any person, no matter their sins or virtues, reflects the wrong values. In this view, the practice of affixing an entire life-form with the name of a single individual must end entirely.
When the ornithologist Robert Driver petitioned the American Ornithological Society in 2018 to rebrand McCown’s longspur, his proposal was rejected. This species was named after an Army officer who accidentally shot one of the birds, and who also waged campaigns against Indigenous tribes before joining the Confederacy; members of an AOS committee, which maintains an official list of common names for North American birds, variously said that “judging historical figures by current moral standards is problematic,” and that they were “concerned about where we would draw the line.”
But the tide of opinion turned in May 2020. On the same day that a police officer murdered George Floyd, a white woman in New York City’s Central Park falsely told the cops that she was being threatened by Christian Cooper, a Black birder who had asked that she leash her dog. A video of that incident went viral, drawing the birding world into the debates over race and justice that were sweeping America. As Confederate statues and monuments fell nationwide, many birders argued that problematic eponyms also needed to be toppled. In June that year, Jordan Rutter and Gabriel Foley founded Bird Names for Birds, a campaign to rename all American birds that have eponyms. In July, the AOS reconsidered Driver’s proposal because of “heightened awareness of racial issues,” and the following month announced that the newly christened thick-billed longspur would be McCown’s no longer.
Many other eponyms present similar cases for change, although none have been altered yet. John Kirk Townsend, whose name still graces two birds and almost a dozen mammals, dug up the graves of Native Americans and sent their skulls to the physician Samuel George Morton, who wanted to prove that Caucasians had bigger brains than other people; those remains are still undergoing a lengthy process toward burial or repatriation. John Bachman was a practitioner and defender of slavery, reasoning that Black people, whom he compared to domesticated animals, were so intellectually inferior to Caucasians as to be “incapable of self-government”; Bachman’s sparrow was named by his friend, John James Audubon. And Audubon, the most renowned—and, more recently, notorious—figure in American ornithology and the namesake of an oriole, a warbler, and a shearwater, also robbed Native American graves for Morton’s skull studies, while casually buying and selling slaves. “People have been singing his praises for 150 years, but in the last 15 years, he has turned out to be quite a monster,” says Matthew Halley, an ornithologist and historian, who has also found evidence that Audubon committed scientific fraud by fabricating a fake species of eagle that helped launch his career. In light of Audubon’s actions, several local chapters of the National Audubon Society have renamed themselves, as has the society’s union. In March, though, the national society’s board of directors voted to keep the name, on the grounds that it would allow the organization to “direct key resources and focus towards enacting the organization’s mission.”
The drive to change these eponyms has faced the same now-familiar criticisms as the push to remove Confederate monuments. Proponents have been charged with erasing history but counter that they are clarifying it: People tend to assume that an eponym represents the individual who actually described the species, when it’s usually an honorific, sometimes exalting people with no connection to birds at all. (Anna’s hummingbird, for instance, was named after Anna Masséna, a French courtier and naturalist’s wife.) Halley also rejects the AOS’s original argument that modern birders are inappropriately judging the past using today’s standards. Townsend, for example, who came from a Quaker family and had an abolitionist for a sister, “was going against the moral teachings of his own community,” Halley told me. Meanwhile, Black people have always rejected slavery, just as Natives have always opposed ethnic cleansing, Hampton said. What’s changed is their presence in communities that typically decide what animals are called.
Critics have also argued that names are meant to be stable, and changing them sows confusion. But there’s precedent in the bird world for updating them: In 1957, the AOS revised 188 common bird names to achieve better transatlantic consistency, and it has changed dozens more since 1998. Names change all the time, for scientific and cultural reasons, and given a choice between stability and respect for people whose ancestors were harmed by early ornithologists, “I come down on the side of respect,” David Allen Sibley, a renowned author and illustrator of bird field guides, said in 2021.
For some scientists, the eponym problem is about more than the egregious misdeeds of a few individuals. As Europeans spread to other continents, they brought not only invasive species that displaced native ones but also invasive nomenclature that ousted long-standing native terms for plants and animals. In Africa, the scientific names of a quarter of local birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals are eponyms, mostly from Europe. On the biodiverse Pacific island of New Caledonia, more than 60 percent of plant eponyms honor French citizens. Countless species around the world have been named after European scientists whose travels were made possible by imperial ventures aimed at expanding territories or extracting natural resources. “We have romantic ideas of these explorers going around the world, seeing beautiful things, and naming them, and we forgot how they got there to begin with,” Natalia Piland, an ecologist at Florida International University, told me.
Such naming patterns still continue. Piland and her colleagues found that since 1950, 183 newly identified birds have been given eponyms, and although 96 percent of these species live in the global South, 68 percent of their names honor people from the global North. In 2018, the Rainforest Trust, an American conservation nonprofit, auctioned off the rights to name 12 newly discovered South American species, leading to a frog named after Greta Thunberg and a caecilian named after Donald Trump. (A similar auction in 2005 landed a Bolivian monkey with the name of the internet casino GoldenPalace.com.) The beloved British naturalist David Attenborough has more than 50 species named after him, most of which live in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. That is not to begrudge Attenborough, Thunberg, or Trump; having a species named after you is widely considered a great honor, but globally, such honorees are still disproportionately people of European descent—a perpetuation of colonialism through taxonomy.
Some scientists have proposed reinstating Indigenous names for animals wherever possible. But many species live across the territories of different Indigenous groups, or migrate across national or continental divides, making it hard to know whose names to prioritize. And if native names are applied without native consultation, the result can smack of cultural appropriation. Emma Carroll from the University of Auckland took on both challenges in naming a recently identified species of beaked whale. Carroll spent a year consulting Indigenous groups in countries where the new whale’s specimens had been found. In South Africa, the Khoisan Council suggested using the word //eu//’eu, which means “big fish” and is now immortalized in the scientific name Mesoplodon eueu. For the common name, Carroll asked a Māori cultural expert in New Zealand to draw up a shortlist, which she then ran past a local council. She eventually named the creature “Ramari’s beaked whale” after Ramari Stewart—a Māori whale expert whose work was pivotal in identifying the new species, and who has been “working to bridge Western science and mātauranga [Maori knowledge] for decades,” Carroll told me. Fittingly, ramari also means “a rare event” in the Māori language, and beaked whales are famously elusive.
Inspired by Carroll’s example, Eric Archer of the NOAA used a similar approach when describing a new species of bottlenose dolphin. He initially wanted to name it after Jim Mead—a respected scientist to whom Archer owes his career. But after feeling that this pattern of honoring close colleagues was too insular, he consulted the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, whose ancestors lived in the lands where the first specimen of the dolphin was found. Eventually, he named it Tamanend’s bottlenose dolphin after an iconic 17th-century chief.
But these names, too, sit uneasily with Steve Hampton, the birder and Cherokee Nation citizen, who told me that many Indigenous communities would see them as recapitulating “colonizer practices.” If the intent is to symbolize a connection between the animals and the people who share its land, “then take the apostrophe-s off,” Hampton said. Those two characters invoke ownership, as if an individual could lay claim to an entire species—a fundamentally colonial way of thinking, no matter whether the honoree is an Indigenous woman or a European man. By that logic, the issue with eponyms isn’t that some of them honor people who did vile things. It’s that animals shouldn’t be named after people at all.
Doing away with all eponyms avoids, if nothing else, the problem of judging who, exactly, is objectionable enough to have their name stripped away from a species. Kevin Thiele, a botanist and director of Taxonomy Australia, argues, for instance, that the scientific community can easily expunge eponyms that honor “history’s monsters” without jettisoning the practice altogether; he told me that “a good cutoff might be if a person had influence, and thus has an eponym, as a result of egregious acts.” For example, the Australian flowers that he studies—Hibbertia—are named after George Hibbert, an 18th-century Englishman and amateur botanist whose fortunes and status derived almost entirely from the transatlantic slave trade. By contrast, hundreds of species are named after Charles Darwin, who certainly had racist views and benefited from colonialism, but who is honored because he profoundly shaped our understanding of nature. (Darwin also staunchly opposed slavery.) Hibbertia should go, but Darwin’s eponyms can stay, Thiele says.
But Halley, the historian, suspects that people “who want to go in with a scalpel don’t know the full extent of the improprieties in the historical records,” he told me, and a clean slate would be preferable. Carlos Daniel Cadena, a Colombian ornithologist, agrees. “There’s a lot of potential to make these discussions ugly if we start going name by name and trying to decide which person was good or bad,” he told me. “And in 200 years, will we all be despicable because we trashed the planet or ate meat?”
Others argue that, more importantly, the act of honoring a person through an organism’s name dishonors the organism itself. It treats animals and plants as inanimate objects like buildings or streets, constructed and owned by humans, instead of beings with their own lives and histories. “It doesn’t sit well with me to think of an individual human becoming the signifier of an entire species,” Piland said. A more descriptive name, meanwhile, is a chance to tell a creature’s story. Joseph Pitawanakwat, an Anishinaabe educator, notes that many of his people’s bird names are layered with meaning—onomatopoeias that mimic calls, and descriptions of habitat and behavior, all embedded in a single word that could have been coined only through a deep understanding of the animals. English names could be similarly descriptive: Thick-billed longspur tells you something about the bird that might help you recognize it in a way that McCown’s longspur does not.
These arguments are gaining traction. This March, Patrícia Guedes from the University of Porto and an international group of 10 colleagues published a commentary saying that “naming a biological species after a human was and is never right—regardless of good intentions.” But even if the scientific community as a whole agreed with this principle, the logistics of changing or banning eponyms are not simple. Many people who have animals named after them are still alive; changing those names would effectively strip them of an honor. And Cadena said that many Latin American researchers bristle when they’re told that they shouldn’t name animals after their colleagues. “North Americans and Europeans have named things after themselves for centuries, and now we cannot do it?” Cadena told me.
Changing the scientific names of animals is especially tricky because such names are formally governed by the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)—a group of 26 scientists who volunteer time outside their main jobs. They simply lack the person-power to oversee changes to even a fraction of the tens of thousands of scientific eponyms, Thomas Pape, the ICZN president, told me—and it’s not in their remit to change even one. Consider Anophthalmus hitleri, a rare Slovenian beetle that was named after Adolf Hitler in 1933 and is now threatened by enthusiastic Nazi-memorabilia hunters. The ICZN still won’t change its name, because “we stand absolutely firm on not regulating based on ethics,” Pape told me. “It’s not our mandate.”
But, though he argues that set names are important for allowing scientists to unambiguously communicate about the organisms they study, Pape also admits that “it’s strange that we keep talking about stability when we keep changing names.” Scientific names change frequently, when a species is reclassified or split into several new ones. They can also change because scientists uncover an alternative name that was assigned first and then forgotten, or because they violate Latin grammar. There are also routes for changing scientific names through societal force of will. Pape cites the case of Raymond Hoser, an Australian amateur herpetologist who has assigned hundreds of new names to questionably defined species and genera of reptiles—often on shaky scientific grounds, usually in his own self-published journal, and in many cases honoring his family members and pets. Other taxonomists are simply refusing to use his names; if that continues, “it might be possible for the ICZN to rule that those names should not be used,” Pape told me.
Common names are even easier to shift, because there’s typically no formal process for doing so. In 1993, a zoologist decided to name a predatory marine worm with scissorlike jaws the “Bobbit worm,” referencing the incident in which Lorena Gallo (then Bobbitt) cut off her husband’s penis. Other biologists, who noted that the name mocks a woman who survived repeated domestic and sexual abuse, have just started calling the worm “sand striker” instead. In this vein, common names that are deemed offensive enough could change organically as people stop using them, Eric Archer, the NOAA biologist, told me. “I don’t think it’s necessarily something that should be done by fiat,” he said.
For North American birds, there is a standardized list of common names, maintained by the AOS. It has no legal standing but is widely followed by birders, conservationists, and, notably, the federal government. Name changes would carry far more clout if the AOS ratified them. It has traditionally been unwilling to, but after the events of 2020, it formed a committee to develop a process for identifying and changing “harmful or exclusionary English bird names.” Hampton and James are part of that 11-person committee, which Cadena co-chairs. They wouldn’t reveal specifics of their recommendations, which they’re set to present on June 15 to the governing body of the AOS, but at least some of them have come around to the idea that all eponyms should go. And they stressed that they wanted to unite the birding world rather than divide it.
Any changes, they imagine, would mean that rookie and veteran birders alike would have something new to learn, while the entire community could be involved in concocting new monikers—a practice that could generate more excitement about birds at a time when many species desperately need to be protected. Hampton acknowledged that community involvement can be risky—“we have talked about ‘Birdy McBirdface’ many times,” he said, referencing the crowdsourced boat-naming campaign from 2016 that yielded Boaty McBoatface—but he and other committee members think it’d be worth it to open up the right to name nature to a much broader swath of society than the one that has long held it. Wildlife doesn’t belong to it, or to anyone, and shouldn’t be named as if it does.
That’s the view of every birder under 40 whom Hampton talks to, and every person of color—demographics that will have a growing say over our custodianship of the natural world. “Everyone in our committee knows that 20 or 30 years from now, the next generation will be changing all of these names if we don’t,” Hampton said. To him, it feels inevitable. Perhaps future generations will also look upon this moment and see our own historical foibles embedded in the names we now choose. Or perhaps they’ll see a turning point when people stopped seeing animals as vessels for human legacies but as entities with their own worth and stories, reflected in their very names.
This story was updated to clarify that the AOS’s bird-names committee will initially present its findings internally.