Micro Musings: What’s in a Name?

There is bias in the names of calcareous nannofossil species.

A scanning electron microscope image of the coccolith Emiliania huxleyi
The coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi, named after two men, Cesare Emiliani and Thomas Huxley
File:Emiliania huxleyi coccolithophore (PLoS).png by Alison R. Taylor (University of North Carolina Wilmington Microscopy Facility) licensed under CC BY 2.5

Welcome to the first of my “Micro Musings,” smaller format posts designed to fill the gaps between main posts. Micro Musings allow me to provide more insight and entertainment while you wait for the time it takes to research and write up the main posts.

This week, I take a look into gender bias in species names.

A species name can be descriptive (sapiens = wise), designate a place of reference (neanderthalensis  = From the Neander Valley), or can be named after someone (Diplodocus carnegii named after American industrialist Andrew Carnegie). One way my “fossil bias” can creep into paleontology is through these personally-named species.

I have read before that species are mostly named after men (see for example this blog post). This is a way we subtly reduce representation in paleontology. Because it is considered an honor to have a species named after oneself, it suggests to a wider audience that the only people worthy of such honor are men.

I wanted to run a short experiment to see what this looked like in a field I’m more familiar with.

I’m a calcareous nannofossil paleontologist by training, so nannofossils (coccoliths) are what I’m most familiar with. Also, there is a great resource, Nannotax.org, that lists almost all species of nannofossils with nice pictures. I spent a few hours counting all the species of coccoliths and nannoliths on that site, noting whether species were named after men, women, or other. I did not separate by unique names; a single person’s name could be used in multiple species.

I counted 1805 total species. Of this total, 360 species were named after men (17%) and 105 were named after women (6%). Another way to think about this is that species are almost 3.5x more likely to be named after men than women.

Pie chart showing that out of all nannofossil species names, 17% are named after men, 6% women, and 77% other
Out of all nannofossil species on Nannotax.org, 17% are named after men while only 6% women.

This is a clear example of the “bias of the fossil record.” 

I’m not advocating for changing names, or forcing authors to name species after a more diverse groups of people. I think that by making geoscience more equitable, and raising awareness of the contributions of women, this problem may correct itself. Many people name species after mentors, as I did in my 2019 publication. As scientists in senior positions become more diverse, I expect we will see names to likewise become more diverse.

Nannofossil species that I named including Ahmuellerella frankiae and Gartnerago waszczakii
Nannofossil species I coauthored (Schueth and Lees, 2019). A. frankiae named after my undergraduate research advisor Tracy Frank, and G. waszczakii named after my career mentor Ron Waszczak.

I hope you found this interesting. Let me know your thoughts on species naming biases, and how, or even if we should, try to fix this problem.

Also keep posted, as I will soon release part one of my series on Mary Anning!

References

Schueth, J. D., and J. A. Lees. “Pioneer nannofossil assemblages from the initial transgression of the Niobrara seaway in the Turonian, San Juan Basin, New Mexico, USA.” Marine Micropaleontology 151 (2019): 101771.

Young, J.R., Bown P.R., Lees J.A. (2017) Nannotax3 website. International Nannoplankton Association. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021. URL: http://www.mikrotax.org/Nannotax3

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