It is just five millimeters small and lives hidden in caves. Even though many experts have never seen the beetle, it still excites people. The reason is its scientific name: Anophthalmus hitleri. The brown, eyeless beetle was named after Adolf Hitler – and because of its name it is very popular with certain collectors. Another bone of contention is on display in the Natural History Museum in Berlin: the dinosaur Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki, named after Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who was involved in atrocities in Africa as a commander of the German colonial army.

The little brown beetle will probably keep its name. So far there have been no requests to change the scientific names of animal species for ethical reasons – including Anophthalmus hitleri, said taxonomist Daniel Whitmore, who is a member of the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature. This body issues the rules for naming new animal species.

There are several examples like this. Most of them are animals that were scientifically described a long time ago. But can we accept this in times when streets are being renamed, monuments are being torn down and language is being thought about critically in general? Even in the scientific community, controversial animal names are being discussed. But nothing is likely to change any time soon. What you need to know:

Every year thousands of new animal species are described around the world. How taxonomists should proceed is set out in the international rules for zoological nomenclature. The nomenclature does not provide any content guidelines, says zoology professor Michael Ohl from the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. The researchers can choose the names freely, as long as they are formed technically correctly. “These apply as soon as they are published and can no longer be deleted.”

There is a long tradition of naming newly discovered animal species after people – to flatter a generous donor, to honor family or friends or to attract attention with the help of prominent namesakes, as Ohl writes in his book “The Art of Naming”. A species of millipede bears the name of pop star Taylor Swift, beetles are named after the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the climate protection activist Greta Thunberg, and a species of moth is reminiscent of the former US President Donald Trump.

The example of the Hitler beetle and a butterfly named after the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini shows particularly clearly that naming people after people can become a problem. What if a politician drifts into extremist circles or a film star is on trial for sexual assault? According to some scientists, species names can also be discriminatory or racist.

The paleobiologist Emma Dunne from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, together with other experts, examined the names of all known dinosaurs – around 1,500. The scientist does not want to talk about the results of the study before publication. According to a report in the journal Nature, the team found, among other things, that many fossils discovered in Tanzania between 1908 and 1920 were named after German researchers instead of after local expedition participants, or that the names were derived from colonial place names. The majority of names with a gender-specific ending were also male.

According to an estimate by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature – the body that issues the rules for naming – around 20 percent of animal names are so-called eponyms. These are names that are meant to honor people. These are the largest group of names that could cause offense, the commission writes in a statement. Toponyms, i.e. place names, could also be perceived as offensive. They made up about ten percent of the names. “This means that several hundred thousand accepted scientific names could be called into question,” it says.

When it came to dinosaur names, the researchers rated less than three percent as problematic. Expressed in numbers, the problem is really insignificant, explains co-author Evangelos Vlachos from the Paleontological Museum in Trelew, Argentina, in the “Nature” report. Nevertheless, it is of great relevance: one must critically examine previous practice and try to correct errors, he demands.

The Commission rejects the renaming of animals on ethical grounds. “We understand, of course, that some names can cause discomfort or offense,” says taxonomist Daniel Whitmore from the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, who is a member of the commission. But the priority is a universal and stable nomenclature so that there is no confusion. “It “It’s not our job to judge whether names are offensive or ethically unacceptable, because that is a very subjective and personal matter,” he adds. “So it would be difficult to make a decision that everyone would be happy with.”

The Berlin zoologist Ohl can understand that it is currently not possible to rename animal species according to the nomenclature rules. “The Commission simply doesn’t want to go into that because it doesn’t know how it needs to be implemented in detail to create clarity – and because it’s afraid of opening Pandora’s box,” he says. But the commission must deal with it and find criteria for how best to deal with ethically questionable names. “The pressure from society and the scientific community is great.”

Sri Lankan taxonomist Rohan Pethiyagoda says: Yes. In his view, if animal species were to be renamed, this would mean that researchers like him would be distracted from their actual task of describing the earth’s biological diversity. Instead, they would have to deal with issues that do not play a role in countries like Sri Lanka, writes Pethiyagoda in the specialist journal “Megataxa”. He doesn’t think it makes sense to change scientific names: According to him, most species have everyday names, and the scientific names are usually only used by experts.

Whitmore also thinks that the discussion is not of concern to the general public. If you want to change scientific names, you can submit an application to the commission, which then decides in a lengthy decision-making process involving the scientific community, as the expert explains. There have been such requests when names were technically incorrect. “So far, no one has requested a name change for ethical reasons.” Not even with Anophthalmus Hitleri.

“In a case like the Hitler Beetle, a renaming wouldn’t change much,” says Ohl. Because the name would not disappear completely. Animals often have several scientific names, so they are all listed in a kind of catalog under the currently valid name. Anyone who wants to collect the Hitler Beetle because of the name will continue to do so, says Ohl.

One way to critically address controversial animal names would be, for example, to address their history in museums in order to stimulate thought. The Berlin Natural History Museum has already done this with Dysalotosaurus lettowvorbecki. “Unfortunately, the strict rules of taxonomy preclude any subsequent changes to species names once they have been assigned,” it says on a display board.