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Scientists call for ditching ‘sexist’ dinosaur names

The researchers also said they want new, more inclusive guidelines for naming species

German paleobiologists have called for an overhaul of the system used in naming dinosaurs, arguing the current nomenclature contains nearly 100 “potentially offensive” names, Nature magazine reported on Tuesday, citing the team’s still-unpublished paper. 

A group of researchers analyzed the names of every dinosaur fossil from the Mesozoic Era, defined as between 251.9 million and 66 million years ago, combing through 1,500 species for names they perceived as “emanating racism, sexism, named after (neo)colonial contexts or after controversial figures).”

They found 89 “problematic” species, according to Nature, amounting to less than 3% of the names analyzed. A dinosaur species might be deemed problematic simply because its name was based on the colonial name for the area where the fossil was discovered, the researchers explained, lamenting that “indigenous-language names of places or researchers are often not used or are mistranslated.” 

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“The problem in terms of numbers is really insignificant. But it is significant in terms of importance,” insisted paleontologist Evangelos Vlachos of the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio, who co-authored the paper with the German team led by Emma Dunne of Friedrich-Alexander University. 

“We aren’t saying that tomorrow we need to change everything. But we need to critically revise what we have done, see what we have done well and what we have not done well, and try to correct it in the future,” Vlachos told Nature, calling on the field of paleontology to change the way it names new discoveries.

In particular, the paper’s authors argued for ditching eponyms – naming species after people – which have become increasingly common in the last two decades. They also complained that 87% of gendered name endings for species were masculine. Instead, they said, paleontologists should choose names that describe the creature being named, such as triceratops, whose name is based on Greek words meaning “three-horned face.” 

However, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which has established loose guidelines for naming species, categorically opposes banning eponyms and would not consider renaming “offensive” species “unless there are what we would call formal nomenclatural reasons,” the organization’s president Thomas Pape of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen told Nature. The group currently only requires that a new dinosaur’s name be unique, linked to a single specimen, and announced in publication. 

Insisting she was not trying to make more work for academics in the field, Dunne called on the ICZN to “do better and be more representative of the community.”

Last year, the American Ornithological Society announced a dramatic overhaul of its own nomenclature system, promising to drop all English names of bird species currently named after people, as well as any other bird names that could potentially be considered offensive or less than inclusive. 

February 21, 2024 at 10:13PM
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