When it comes to naming the species they have discovered, scientists often like to have a little fun. There are Ba humbugi, a Fijian snail referencing one of the grumpiest men in literature. Or Spongiforma squarepantsii, a mushroom named after everyone’s favorite cartoon sponge. And for decades researchers have named species after their iconic colleagues or researchers to honor them, which is why some 300 species of animals are named after Charles Darwin.
But this tradition can perpetuate societal prejudice, according to a new study of parasite names. The scientific names of nearly 3,000 recently identified bloodsuckers, hijackers and other scourges of the biological world primarily honor men.
Perplexed by some of the nicknames of foreign parasites that sometimes make headlines, Robert Poulin, a parasitologist at the University of Otago, Dunedin, and his colleagues combed through studies published in eight leading parasitology journals between 2000 and 2020. Although discoveries of new species of mammals or birds are relatively rare, parasites represent the frontier of taxonomic research, with prodigious amounts of new species described each year. 2007 alone saw nearly 200 new parasites sneak into the scientific record.
For each new species description, the team recorded the name of the species, what it infects and the reasoning behind its scientific name.
Among the 596 species of parasites honoring an eminent scientist, only 18% have immortalized female researchersreports the team today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The gender gap has remained constant over the past 20 years. And 89% of researchers lucky enough to have two or more parasites named after them were men.
The result matches the few previous studies to address this question. For example, a 2010 paper examining the names of nearly 900 varieties of desert succulents in the genus Aloe recorded an even starker disparity: species named after male scientists outnumbered those named after female scientists by more than 10 to one.
These findings come as no surprise to Rachel Welicky, a parasitologist at Neumann University who was not involved in the work. Despite a influx of female parasitologists in recent years, Welicky thinks the long history of male-dominated parasitology research still affects naming conventions. “The reality is that these are patterns that are gleaned over several decades.”
Janine Caira, a parasitologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, also not involved in the new research, agrees. Caira recently sifted through the 141 parasite species she and her colleagues named after people and found that 63% were named after men.
Like Welicky, Caira believes that the past of parasitology is the source of much of the bias. “Historically, there has been a shortage of prominent female parasitologists who have worked on these groups of parasites.”
In addition to the gender gap, the team also found that the average number of parasites named after a close friend or family member of a researcher has steadily increased over the past 20 years. years. In 2020, about 30% of all species not named after their host, locality, or morphology were named after a relative or friend of a researcher, up from only about 20% at the start of the period. of study. Even the researchers’ pets get top honors. In 2011, a skate tapeworm, Rhinebothrium corbataiwas named after the main author’s Welsh terrier, Corbata.
The team argues that such names can come at the expense of honoring often overlooked local collectors, technicians and scientists who are essential to research. For example, the study mentions the case of Tatiana Pequeño Saco, a local ecologist from the Cordillera Azul National Park in Peru who helped a group of parasitologists collect fish specimens in a dense region of the Amazon. To thank her, researchers named Uvuliferous pequenaea flatworm that frequents the guts of kingfishers, after her.
Caira, who is herself the namesake of a series of tapeworms, is a proponent of this naming philosophy. “I love naming a tapeworm after whoever helped us get it back,” she says. Many of the new species she described from her fieldwork on tapeworms that infect sharks and stingrays in Southeast Asia are named after boat captains and fishermen who helped bring back specimens.
Poulin and his co-authors hope their study will inspire parasitologists to pay more attention to creating nicknames that reflect the diversity of the scientific community. “They may not follow our naming suggestions, but they can’t deny the data.”