Names of species with racist and politically incorrect associations

Thick-billed longspur formely McCown's Longspur

Inline with the toppling of statues of individuals who were once heroes but are now seen as politically incorrect individuals such as those that participated in the slave trade and became rich on the back of it, the same attitude is affecting the naming of animal species. This is because at one time it was not uncommon to name new species after people. An example clarifies the point.

“McCown’s longspur” has been renamed the “thick-billed longspur”. The reason for the dislike of the original name is because John Porter McCown was a Confederate Major General after whom the bird was named. In 1851 he shot at passing birds. A small brown bird that he hit was named after him.

Thick-billed longspur formely McCown's Longspur

Photo of a McCown’s Longspur taken near Pakowki Lake, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Wikipedia (Andeansolitaire – Own work)

Today, political correctness and social sensitivities in a more civilised world (hopefully) makes it unacceptable to name animal species after individuals who have tarnished reputations in the eyes of many. The Confederate Major General’s name is unacceptable because of his racist associations.

The issues are not confined to racism and another example highlights this. The “gypsy moth” was named because it has the coloration of a gypsy. This, today, is politically incorrect. Another example is also enlightening. There is a bird called the Townsend’s warbler which is named after John Townsend an ornithologist. He collected humans after desecrating Native American graves. A good reason to dump his name.

Other names are prejudicial with racist connotations such as the “slavemaker ant” and the “Oriental lady’s thumb” (a species of flowering plants in the knotweed family with the scientific name: Persicaria longiseta).

We can thank Robert Driver of East Carolina University for proposing the renaming of McCown’s longspur. He first proposed the change two years ago at a time when there was a “bout of civil unrest [about] race relations, which turned into a discussion about Confederate monuments”.

He thought something needed to happen with respect to the naming of the bird. His first proposal was rejected by the American Ornithological Society. He succeeded at his second attempt under a different political environment. It was formally changed last month.

It appears to have catalysed a change in attitude towards the naming of animal species. Others that need changing are the Hottentot teal, the Jew’s Ear Fungus and Hitler’s eyeless bettle.

There is a spreadsheet online entitled Problematic Common Names. It is completely open access which I find odd but great. I have selected out the list but click on this link to see the full spreadsheet. The link may break eventually.