New ant species named in recognition of gender diversity

A newly discovered miniature cock-jaw ant from the evergreen tropical forests of Ecuador bears the curious Latin name Strumigenys ayersthey, among hundreds, also named in honor of men, but ending in -ae (to women) and -i (to men). This makes the newly described ant arguably the only species in the world to have a scientific name with the suffix -she, celebrating gender diversity.

The insect was first found by Philipp Hoenle of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, during a joint survey of the Reserva Río Canandé in 2018. The reserve is owned by the NGO Jocotoco and preserves a small part of the highly endangered hotspots for biodiversity, the so-called Choco.

Hoenle contacted taxonomic expert Douglas Booher of Yale University. Soon Booher reacted excitedly that this species was unlike any other of the more than 850 species that belong to his genus. As a result, the team described the previously unknown species and its remarkable trap-jaw morphology in a research paper, published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal. ZooKeys.

Curiously, it was none other than lead singer and lyricist of American alternative rock band REM Michael Stipe who co-wrote the etymology section for the research article with Booher. This is the part in the publication where they honor their mutual friend, activist and artist Jeremy Ayers and explain the origin of the species name.

“In contrast to the traditional naming practices that identify individuals as one of two different genders, we chose an unLatinized contraction in honor of the artist Jeremy Ayers and that represents people who don’t identify with conventional binary gender assignments — Strumigenys ayersthey“The ‘they’ recognizes non-binary gender identifiers to reflect the recent evolution in the use of English pronouns – ‘they, them, their’ and address a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of gender identification.”

Current nomenclature practice for naming animal species after humans only distinguishes between masculine and feminine personal names, ending -ae for a woman or -i for a man, respectively.

The research team also proposes that the -side suffix can be used for singular names of non-binary identifiers.

When asked about the choice of a name for the ant, Booher said: “Such a beautiful and rare animal was exactly the species to celebrate both biological and human diversity. Small changes in language have had a big impact on culture. Language is dynamic and so should be the change in species naming – a basic language of science.”

With their pick, the team invites the scientific community to keep up with Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary and HSBC Bank, who have also adapted their own institutional practices, language and recognition to represent gender diversity.

“The discovery of such an unusual rare ant highlights the importance of scientific exploration and conservation of Ecuador’s Chocó region, which is simultaneously one of the most biodiverse and endangered areas on our planet,” the researchers added in conclusion.

Strumigenys ayersthey can be distinguished by its predominantly smooth and glossy cuticle surface and long lower jaws, making it unique among nearly a thousand species of its genus. The researchers haven’t been able to get hold of more specimens of the species, suggesting it’s rare.

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