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.
In 1984, A. hitleri was featured on a Yugoslavian postage stamp, its scientific name withheld.Credit…Arne Hodalič
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.
There are even calls for completely dropping the practice of naming animals after real or fictional people. The American Ornithological Society recently disclosed that, “in an effort to address past wrongs,” it will start changing the English common names of birds that are named after individuals.
“In general, eponyms have historically not been especially scientifically useful,” said May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They generally provide very little insight into the appearance or habits of the insect being named.” She observed, however, that Megapropodiphora arnoldi, a seemingly muscled fly, bears more than a little resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger, aside from being only 0.395 millimeters long.
The zoologist’s code
Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, a micromoth named after former President Donald J. Trump; Megapropodiphora arnoldi, a tiny fly named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former governor of California; and Hibbertia scandens, named for George Hibbert, a trans-Atlantic slave-trade baron.Credit…Vazrick Nazari; Brian Brown; Stephanie Jackson/Alamy
The Binomial Classification System is the foundation for cataloging life on Earth. The system was formalized in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose own questionable taxonomic contributions included “Penicillus penis,” a mollusk, and “Labia minor,” an earwig insect. “Old-white-guy privilege is classic,” Dr. Berenbaum said.
In January, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which referees the taxonomy of animal species, announced that it would not consider ethics-based renamings. A paper that the commission published in The Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society declared that the stability in scientific naming would be undermined if species names were changed because of cultural fashions, resulting in massive confusion.
A group of scholars pushed back this summer in the journal, arguing that taxonomy must be socially responsible and responsive, and that the commission wrongly gives precedence to tradition over ethics. “The decision is a perfect example, unfortunately, of scientists trying to ignore the world around them,” said Christopher J. Bae, an anthropologist at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. “Fortunately, there are a growing number of scientists, particularly those from the global south that have traditionally been underrepresented in these debates, who are beginning to speak up about these issues.“
One such scientist is Estrela Figueiredo, a botanist at the Ria Olivier Herbarium at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. “In which other spheres of human endeavor is anything still named for Hitler?” she said. “The criteria must change and adapt like the rest of society.”
Hyloscirtus princecharlesi, a frog named after King Charles; Scaptia beyonceae, a horse fly named after Beyoncé; Nannaria swiftae, a millipede namesake of Taylor Swift.Credit…Peter Oxford/Danita Delimont, via Alamy; Bryan D. Lessard; Hennen D.A., Means J.C., Marek P.E.
The Zoological Codemandates that no author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to be offensive on any grounds. Compliance with this admonition is both voluntary and subjective. “Hindsight has transformed many names that were not offensive in the past to names that are offensive now,” Dr. Yanega said. “But trying to rewrite or suppress history is a disservice to history, and censorship can do just as much harm as good.”
Frank-Thorsten Krell, a member of the zoological commission, noted that the Hitler beetle’s name has so far not been challenged through official procedures. Occasional complaints have been aired in the press, he said, but no one has ever submitted a case to change it.
Max Barclay, a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, believes it is better to counter reprehensible species names, as Italian entomologists did five years ago when they found a cave beetle closely related to A. hitleri. The researchers deliberately named it Duvalius owensi after Jesse Owens, the Black American track and field athlete who single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
“This was a very deliberate slap in the face to Hitler,” Dr. Barclay said, “but done with humor and by honoring someone deserving, instead of taking the puritanical, authoritarian approach of changing unsuitable names.”
‘An expression of my admiration’
Anophthalmus hitleri was discovered in the former Yugoslavia on June 20, 1932, four months after the Austrian-born Hitler became a German citizen and four days before he demanded, as leader of the Nazi Party, that the government declare martial law throughout the country. The discoverer, a naturalist named Vladimir Kodric, stumbled on the insect in a cave named Pekel (English translation: hell) near the town of Celje, in modern-day Slovenia. The specimen is now enshrined behind glass at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland.
Kodric sent the specimen to Oskar Scheibel, a railway engineer whose hobby was coleopterology, the study of beetles. Scheibel was convinced that the insect represented a new species, but delayed publishing the news to be sure of it. In 1937, with Hitler firmly ensconced as chancellor, Scheibel reneged on a promise to name the beetle after Kodric and registered it as Anophthalmus hitleri. He then notified the chancellery in Berlin of the insect and its new name. (A few experts have suggested that Scheibel may have been mocking Hitler by naming a blind bug after him, but the accompanying description reads: “Given to Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler as an expression of my admiration.”)
Given Hitler’s fondness for beetles — in 1933 he commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design the “people’s car” (volkswagen, in German), which evolved into the VW Bug — it is perhaps not surprising that the tribute pleased the Nazi leader, who sent Scheibel a thank-you note. Curiously, contemporaneous offers to introduce varieties of a rose and a strawberry named for Hitler did not prosper. According to Michael Ohl’s 2019 book, “The Art of Naming,” Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, turned down both requests, informing the inquiring parties that “upon careful consideration” Hitler “requests that a name in his honor most kindly not be used.”
Hitler did have strong views on what animals should be called. In 1942, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to replace the common names for bats (Fledermaus) and shrews (Spitzmaus), reasoning that neither was a maus, or mouse. The society’s decision brought a swift response from Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary. On orders from the outraged Führer, Bormann instructed Lammers to “communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately.”
The message continued: “Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged.”
Today, thanks to Hitler’s notoriety, his namesake beetle is reportedly threatened with extinction. In 2006, the popular German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that nearly every preserved specimen in the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich had been stolen. To the astonishment of the coleopterology community, the beetle has become a sought-after trophy among Nazi memorabilia collectors, who trap the insects in caves and sell them on the open market for as much as $2,000 apiece. To protect its suddenly popular beetles, Slovenia has enacted legislation against collecting insects in protected areas and trading protected species like A. hitleri.
Dr. Barclay, the British museum curator and coauthor of “Beetles of the World: A Natural History,” is skeptical of the extinction hysteria. How could anyone estimate the A. hitleri population, much less determine with any credibility that it was decreasing?
Dr. Barclay dared anyone to draw a Venn diagram of “skilled entomologists,” “skilled speleologists” (cave explorers) and “neo-Nazis.” He asked witheringly, “How many people are in the overlap of these three tiny circles?” He maintained that only people with all three characteristics pose a risk to the beetle.
“I suspect no one fits this overlap,” he said. “I know all the good entomologists capable of finding and recognizing them, and I am fairly sure none are Nazis and only two or three have ever been in a cave.”