What to Do With a Bug Named Hitler?

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Since the end of World War II, no scientific animal name has caused more of a stink than has Anophthalmus hitleri, a designation that describes a rare, amber-colored carabid beetle that dwells in a few damp caves in central Slovenia.

The problem isn’t the genus name, Anophthalmus, which denotes that, like other cave beetles living in perpetual darkness, this one has no eyes. What many zoologists find appalling is the species name, hitleri, which an Austrian bug collector bestowed upon the beetle in 1937 in homage to Hitler in spite of the leader’s ruthless and racist actions, including the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 and the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, with the Holocaust still to come.

Appropriately, Anophthalmus hitleri, or “eyeless Hitler,” is a significant predator that Doug Yanega, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, said is probably near the top of the micro-animal food chain and “eats anything smaller and weaker than it.” Still, the connection to the despot has been deemed so unsavory that when the creature was featured on a Yugoslavian postage stamp in 1984, its Latin name was withheld.

These days, the so-called Hitler beetle is at the center of a ferocious debate among scientists about whether animals bearing objectionable biological names should be given new ones. Zoological nomenclature abides by a code that says the valid name of an organism is the one that was first in use, and because convention eschews change, A. hitleri has endured. A name can be altered only in extreme circumstances, related to the development of scientific knowledge, but insensitive names given in the past have been immutable.

Still, some scholars have proposed erasing names deemed offensive or exclusionary or that commemorate racists, colonizers and the more monstrous members of the human species. Among the most problematic names are Hypopta mussolinii, a Libyan moth named for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and Hibbertia, a genus of Australian guinea flowers christened after George Hibbert, a patron of botany who got rich on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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What to Do With a Bug Named Hitler?

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