Sciency Words: Anophthalmus hitleri

Hello, friends!  Today’s post is probably a bad idea!

Sciency Words is a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about scientific terminology.  In today’s episode, we’re talking about:

ANOPHTHALMUS HITLERI

If you’re the first person to identify a new species, you get to name it.  That’s the rule.  You do have to double check to make sure nobody else identified your species first, and the name you pick should sound vaguely like Latin.  But otherwise, be creative, have some fun, and name your newly discovered species however you like!

That’s what Austrian entomologist Oskar Scheibel did in 1937.  Scheibel was the first to identify a species of blind, cave-dwelling beetle native to Slovenia, and he decided to name these beetles after one of his greatest heroes: Adolf Hitler.

Anophthalmus hitleri can be translated to mean “the blind one of Hitler”—a name which seems symbolically appropriate, in a way.  They’re now an endangered species.  Apparently a lot of Neo-Nazis really want a Hitler beetle for their Nazi memorabilia collections, so much so that Anophthalmus hitleri is being driven to extinction by poachers—a fact which also seems symbolically appropriate, in a way.

But this post isn’t really about Hitler or Neo-Nazism.  Rather, I’m bringing this up because the example of Anophthalmus hitleri helps illustrate an important point about scientific terminology: once a name has been established in the scientific lexicon—even if it’s a really awful name like Anophthalmus hitleri—it’s really hard to change it.

Scientists like being able to review prior research about a given topic.  If scientists were constantly renaming things, that would make finding all that prior research rather difficult.  This is especially true when it comes to species names.  There are an absolutely ridiculous number of species out there, and keeping track of them all is hard enough as it is.

The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature is currently in charge of the rules for naming animal species.  And the rules are, basically, what I said before: if you’re the first to identify a new species, you get to name it.

The only way a species name can be changed is if some new information comes to light, or some new discovery is made, revealing that you made some sort of mistake.  Maybe you weren’t really the first person to identify that species, or maybe you assigned your newly discovered species to the wrong family or genus.  But Oskar Scheibel doesn’t seem to have made any mistakes like that, and so Anophthalmus hitleri is stuck with the name it’s got.

Next time on Planet Pailly, I like to think I’m pretty smart, but maybe I’m not as smart as I think.