What’s in a Scientific Name: A Look at Wildlife Eponyms

Whose names are worthy of wildlife? From Charles Darwin to Taylor Swift, these eponyms are agitating the world of taxonomy.

  • By Asher Elbein
  • Conservation
  • Dec 30, 2023

Photo Illustration By Mike McQuade.

WHAT WOULD YOU CALL a newly identified species? If your first thought is to bestow a name on a plant or animal honoring family, friends or yourself, you’re not alone. The tradition of using eponyms when creating scientific, or Latin, names for organisms dates back at least to 1753, when Carl Linnaeus set out his system of binomial nomenclature.

Recently, though, the world of taxonomy has been roiled by debate over which of these eponyms are appropriate. Some scientists argue against scientific names that enshrine the legacy of colonial biologists while explaining little about an organism. Others hold that eponyms are part of the history of science, often honoring those who “discovered” a species, and are a worthy reward for scientists who aren’t otherwise recognized, including those in the global south.

Unlike scientific names, most common names do not have formal rules and can be changed with comparative ease. In November 2023, the American Ornithological Society announced it would begin changing the English-language common names of all birds found on the North American continent currently named after people.

Latin names, however, “have very specific rules governed by international bodies to avoid taxonomic chaos,” says Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation’s chief scientist who has eight species, from an orchid to a mite, named after him. With relatively few working taxonomists and many species that need formal description, Stein says it’s hard to see how diverting attention to renaming “advances the urgent needs of the species themselves.”

Depending on who you ask, naming species after people can be a fun honor, an inappropriate celebration of a problematic past or a total distraction from the actual organism. “Naming is itself a cultural or social action,” says Stephen Heard, a biologist at the University of New Brunswick. “Practices vary across groups of scientists for many reasons. I think it’s fair to say that there’s absolutely no agreement on what should—or even can—happen.”

For now, wildlife are named after all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. Here are just a few.

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An image of a Darwinopterus modularis fossil.


Famous Scientists

In 2009, a team of Chinese paleontologists identified a pterosaur with features from two different families of flying reptiles and commemorated the evolutionary marvel with the name Darwinopterus, or “Darwin’s wing.”

While the species is scientifically notable, it doesn’t have a direct connection to Darwin—nor do many of its in-name-only kin. A 2011 research paper found more than 300 different species named for the co-originator of the theory of natural selection, including two rodents and a canine.

It’s common practice for taxonomists to name species after colleagues or respected figures in their field. But scientists with multiple species named in their honor historically have tended to be male, of European extraction and born before the 20th century, according to Heard.

Some of the history connected to those names is extremely dark. Bird specialist John James Audubon collected skulls of Mexican soldiers during the Texas Revolution to advance spurious and racist theories of human development. (Revisit our 2021 story on racist bird names.) While the American Ornithological Society has pledged to rename birds dubbed in his honor, including a warbler and an oriole, the National Audubon Society has faced widespread criticism for deciding not to relabel the nonprofit that bears his name.

But with as many as 18,000 newly identified species in need of formal naming each year, the demand outstrips the current taxonomist labor supply.

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An image of a specimen of Anophthalmus hitleri.

Anophthalmus hitleri

Problematic Politicians

In 1933, the German entomologist Oskar Scheibel decided to honor his political hero by bestowing Adolf Hitler’s name on a blind cave beetle from Slovenia that Scheibel had bought off a collector: Anophthalmus hitleri, or “Hitler’s eyeless one.”

Hitler’s name does not warrant glorifying. But the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which governs scientific names, holds that they must only be changed for valid scientific reasons. So far, neither arguments of good taste nor the possibility of neo-Nazis collecting the beetle into extinction qualifies.

The Hitler beetle is an exceptional case. But plenty of species are named after politicians and state leaders, many of whom have wildly divisive legacies. A giant ground sloth was named after slaveholding president Thomas Jefferson. Donald Trump got a moth and a caecilian.

While University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum isn’t against eponyms, she believes some names can overshadow the creatures: “If you find something like a spotted cucumber beetle, give it a name that means ‘spots,’ so it’s anchored to the organism for an appropriate reason.”

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An image of the centipede Nannaria swiftae.

Nannaria swiftae

Beloved Celebrities

In 2022, a team of entomologists led by Derek Hennen of Virginia Tech collected a number of specimens while sorting a taxonomic group of millipedes. Hennen had often blasted the pop star Taylor Swift’s songs, he told Rolling Stone, to help him “get through the highs and lows of graduate school.” To show his Swiftie devotion, he named one species Nannaria swiftae, or “Swift twisted-claw millipede.”

Celebrities are common recipients of eponyms. Mozart has at least four species named after him. The experimental rocker Frank Zappa got a jellyfish; bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs got a banjo catfish. David Attenborough, the famed natural history presenter, has more than 40 species, from a prehistoric marine reptile to a native British flower.

Sometimes monikers are bestowed out of fandom. Other times, there’s a more prosaic reason: Scientists occasionally sell naming rights in order to raise money for research. “My team and I have named new species after celebrities and billionaires, no different than what Galileo did with his patrons, the Medici,” says Alejandro Arteaga, a herpetologist with the Khamai Foundation. Honorifics from his team include a species of snail-eating snake named for Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother, at the actor’s request, after receiving DiCaprio’s financial support. “Naming support helps offset some of the costs of discovering and protecting new species but is nowhere near enough,” Arteaga says.

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An image of a new species of owl, Principe scops-owl, perched on a branch.

Otus bikegila

Local Researchers

In 2022, a team of researchers named a wide-eyed scops-owl from the island of Príncipe off the west coast of Africa Otus bikegila, or “Bikegila’s owl.” Island resident Bikegila, whose legal name is Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, previously harvested parrots before becoming a park ranger. He also played a significant role in confirming the owl’s existence in Príncipe’s old-growth forest.

“The name is also meant as an acknowledgment to all locally based field assistants who are crucial in advancing knowledge on the biodiversity of the world,” the (predominantly European) researchers wrote in the journal ZooKeys.

Taxonomists in favor of eponyms argue that such choices help counter colonial narratives. “Eponyms offer you the chance to correct some of the historic injustices,” says Brian Sidlauskas, an ichthyologist at Oregon State University. “Species are also increasingly being named by scientists living and working from these countries, rather than British people naming animals after other British people.”

A related debate considers whether plants and wildlife should be named for Indigenous People from the given species’ home habitat. This, too, can be culturally tricky. Australian Indigenous communities, for example, don’t use the name of the recently deceased, and some North American First Nations don’t follow the practice of naming things after people. “The Linnaean naming system is entirely separate from how many Indigenous Peoples know their plant and animal relatives,” says Clint Carroll, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, although Carroll says that if an Indigenous scientist proposed such a system, he’d support it.

The ICZN will likely issue an updated set of naming guidelines in the next two years. Until then, eponyms still enjoy broad support in the field. “There has to be some reward for being an insect systematist,“ Berenbaum says, “because it’s not fame or fortune.”

Asher Elbein is a nature and culture reporter based in Austin, Texas. Read more about him.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

What's in a Name? »
Borneo Beckoning »
Meet the New Species of Endangered Whale Discovered in the Gulf of Mexico »

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