Newly Described Ant Species Becomes First Named To Honor Gender Diversity

Side view of Strumigenys ayersthey. Image Credit: Booher DB, Hoenle PO (2021)

Researchers have discovered a rare new miniature trap-jaw ant in the tropical forest of Ecuador in South America. The new insect has been named Strumigenys ayersthey after activist and artist Jeremy Ayers who died in 2016. The ant is truly unique among its genus, which has over 850 species, and to celebrate its uniqueness its discoverers decided to honor Ayers and "celebrate both biological and human diversity" by making it possibly the only species in the world with a scientific name with the suffix "they".

The newly described species was first identified in 2018 by Philipp Hoenle from the Technical University of Darmstadt in the Reserva Río Canandé, which is owned and taken care of by the NGO Jocotoco. Described in the journal ZooKeys, it is distinguishable for its smooth and shiny cuticle surface and distinctively long trap-jaw mandibles, which makes it stand out even in its overcrowded genus. The fact they haven't been able to find any more specimens suggest it's rare.

To confirm that what he found was a new species Hoenle reached out to Douglas Booher, an expert of taxonomy at Yale University. Booher not only confirmed the new discovery but also proposed a name with a twist: its Latin name would celebrate gender diversity.

Strumigenys ayersthey
Strumigenys ayersthey has a smooth and shiny cuticle surface and distinctively long trap-jaw mandible.. Image Credit: Booher DB, Hoenle PO (2021)

Animal species are often named after people. Due to the gendered nature of the Latin language, if the species is named after a man it usually gets the masculine suffix "-i" e.g. Platysaurus attenboroughi after naturalist David Attenborough. If it's named after a woman, it gets the suffix “-ae”, for example, Aptostichus angelinajolieae after actor Angelina Jolie, who had a spider named after her for her work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

This binary view of gender is common in several (but not all) languages and cultures across the Asian peninsula of Europe. While Latin nouns have a neuter (neither) option, this has never been used for living creatures (with the exception of the word scortum, which refers to sex workers of any gender).

A micro-CT scan of Strumigenys ayersthey. Image credit: Booher et al., 2021, Zookeys

Curiously Michael Stipe, lead singer and lyricist of REM, was involved in the naming of the new ant. Booher and Stipe, both personal friends of Ayers – who was part of Andy Warhol’s Factory, wrote the B-52s’ hit song “52 Girls,” and used the drag name Sylva Thinn – opted for the Anglicism of "-they"

"Such a beautiful and rare animal was just the species to celebrate both biological and human diversity," Booher said in a statement. "Small changes in language have had a large impact on culture. Language is dynamic and so should be the change in naming species – a basic language of science." 

Booher and Hoenle propose that the "-they" suffix can be used for singular honorific names of non-binary agender people as a way of updating scientific naming conventions. The use of "they" has been in use as a singular pronoun since the 14th century and is a helpful way of keeping Latin up to date for modern times, given that as a dead language it cannot evolve naturally.


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