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New Research Spotlights The Inequity Of Species Names

Frank D. Lospalluto/Flickr
A Clark's nutcracker, named after explorer William Clark, who encountered the bird while floating what is now known as the Salmon River in present-day Idaho.

While there's an insect named after Lady Gaga, and a lichen named after former President Barack Obama, a lot of the time species get named after scientists - especially white men.

A case study published in the journal Biological Conservation examined more than 650 plants on the remote islands of New Caledonia in the South-West Pacific. It found that only 6% of the species were named after women, and only 7% had been named after people born on the islands.

"Is that fair to name a species after someone from a place that he's never been to?" asks the study's author, biologist Yohan Pillon.

Instead, Pillon argues that conservation science should be more inclusive, and naming species is a chance to acknowledge the diversity of individuals who have contributed to our understanding of the natural world.

"Areas of high biodiversity often overlap with areas of high linguistic diversity, but the links among biodiversity and cultural and linguistic diversity are often underappreciated," Pillon wrote in the study. "To promote the preservation of biodiversity, species should be named with an eye toward how these names will be perceived by the local communities involved."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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