On the surface, naming a newly discovered frog in Ecuador after Led Zeppelin, the British rock music group, seems like scientists having a bit of fun or sharing a rare touch of whimsy (Brito-Zapata & Reyes-Puig, 2021). Let me squash that notion. To me the name is a fine example of ecological colonialism in action. It raises questions about the impact of racism in ecology and the broader environmentalism fields (Finney, 2014).
It was only a few weeks ago that debates boiled over on replacing eponymous bird names with more neutral ones (Leber, 2020). Most eponymous bird names memoralize white naturalists from the last century, and whose ‘discoveries’ advanced both western scientific knowledge and the expansion of imperialism (Jacobs, 2016). In North America, the eponymous bird names commemorate the settlers and colonizers, but not their resulting offspring of genocide and slavery. The on-going Black Lives Matter protests illuminate the legacies of living in slavery’s after-life – even when birdwatching (Hartman, 2008; Scott, 2020).
How things are named in ecology matters – including the new frog in Ecuador.
The Power of Names in Ecology
Every living organism in science is classified using a binomial nomenclature. In other words, it has two names, in Latin, that are unique. It is a practical system that ensures that scientists around the world are talking about the same organism. For example, in the case of birds, Dolichonyx oryzivorus is known by many local names including the bobolink, rice-bird, and the butter-bird. The binomial name avoids confusion and is the key identifier of an organism.
The Ecuadorian frog is named Pristimantis ledzeppelin. The second part of the name memoralises a British music group, and has no relationship to the land of the frog, or to its human and more-than-human relatives. The name erases the Ecuadorian location, and the cultural and ecological contexts of the frog. The name centres whiteness in a region where Europeans arrived as colonizers.
Every time scientists talk or write about the frog they will use its binomial name. Thus, the name becomes part of the grammar of ecology. Hortense Spillers (1987) writes of the centrality of racism in the American grammar book. Naming an Ecuadorean frog after a British group, is just the latest example of centring whiteness in the ecology grammar book. For instance, in Canada the Douglas fir’s common name honours a Scottish naturalist. Its scientific name is Pseudotsuga menziesii, the second name is after another Scottish naturalist. Thus, both the common and binomial names of the tree are tied to and reflect settler-colonialism. Then there is the Jack pine or Pinus banksiana named after an English naturalist. The Garry oak, Quercus garryana is named after an officer in the Hudson Bay Company, the iconic Canadian retailer from colonial times to the present.
The binomial nomenclature is only one system of naming organisms. Indigenous people in Ecuador already have their own naming system for organisms; they might have a specific name for the frog or could have informed the new western scientific name.
The Whiteness of Ecology
Traditionally, ecology is a white field (Robbins, 2011). It has a history of erasing, extracting, and exploiting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) groups as sources of ecological knowledge and profit (Kincaid, 2020; Schiebinger & Swan, 2007). In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) writes of the need for western scientists to respect Indigenous ecological knowledge and teachings. It is from these teachings that we can learn to live in reciprocity with nature. The ecological colonialism mindset is also being challenged by the new and critical way of two-eyed seeing in science (Bartlett, et al., 2012). This combines both Indigenous and western scientific methods to gain the best understanding of ecological changes (Kutz & Tomaselli, 2019; Moola, & Roth, 2019).
The name of the frog also spills over into how it is cited in academic studies. Citations codify, legitimize, and memorialize new knowledge or the researchers who created it (McKittrick, 2021). Citations are also a window into who has power in science and ecology (Prescod-Weinstein, 2021). Historically, researchers who are women, and or from BIPOC groups are under-cited (Mott, & Cockayne, 2017; Smith, et al., 2021). Ecologists from these group face multiple systemic barriers in every stage of their careers, including being cited by their peers (Schell, et al., 2020; Tseng, et al., 2020). In addition, the knowledge they create is dismissed or treated as less than.
It is for all these reasons that the naming of the Ecuadorian frog matters. The scientists had a chance to be progressive with the name, but instead they chose to promote whiteness and ecological colonialism by calling it Pristimantis ledzeppelin. Really!
Featured Image by Alejandro Miranda from Pixabay
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