13 September 2021

Naming the animals in research papers

This is Bruce. 

Bruce, a kea with no upper beak, holding an object with his tongue and lower beak.

Bruce has been making the news rounds because of a new paper demonstrating that he uses pebbles to groom. Bruce is a kea, a parrot that normally has a large upper beak, which Bruce does not have. In the picture above, you can see him using his tongue and remaining lower beak to pick up an object.

What I want to talk about is not the tool use (although that is cool), but that I know this bird was given a name. Because I found this paper within days of finding another paper about an unusual bird: an Australian musk duck named Ripper. 

Ripper’s claim to fame was that he was able to imitate sounds, like creaking metal and even human voices. Ripper seems to have picked up the phrase, “You bloody fool” from humans around him. 

This is interesting because vocal learning is found in only a few lineages and hasn’t been documented in ducks before.

But what interested me in both papers is that the scientific papers repeated refer to these bird by the names that humans gave them. Not just once in the methods as an aside, but all the way through.

I can see the value of using a given name in news articles and blog posts like the one I’m writing. And maybe it makes scanning the paper a little easier. But the kea paper refers to “Bruce” 62 times; the duck paper refers to “Ripper” 40 times. The extensive referencing to these names in the journal articles gives me pause.

It’s been clear for a long time that the efforts to keep animals at arm’s length to avoid humanizing them (a position taken furthest, perhaps, by B.F. Skinner and other behaviourists in American psychology) is a lost cause. The approach of people like Jane Goodall (who named her chimps rather than just giving them numbers) has won. 

But these two approaches sit on opposite ends of a continuum. And quite often, there’s a pendulum swing in attitudes. I wonder if the pendulum has maybe swung a little too far towards our willingness to humanize animals in the scientific literature.

It’s easy to slip into teleology (assuming everything has a purpose) and anthropomorphism (thinking animals are like humans). And constantly referring to animals’ names throughout a paper seems to make that even easier. 

I’m not saying that the names we give animals should never be mentioned in papers. But maybe it could be once or twice instead of dozens of times. 

And hey, these animals didn’t get to pick their names. Maybe that duck was thinking, “I say ‘Bloody fool’, and they name me ‘Ripper’ on top of that? Could I be any more of a cliché Australian?)

A Twitter poll suggests I am not alone in being wary of this practice.


Bastos APM, Horváth K, Webb JL, Wood PM, Taylor AH. 2021. Self-care tooling innovation in a disabled kea (Nestor notabilis). Scientific Reports 11(1): 18035. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97086-w

ten Cate C, Fullagar PJ. 2021. Vocal imitations and production learning by Australian musk ducks (Biziura lobata). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 376(1836): 20200243. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0243

1 comment:

  1. Not seeing the problem here. People call the Field Museum's big tyrannosaur "Sue" instead of "FMNH PR 2081" for the obvious reason that it's quicker to say and write, and more memorable. Doesn't mean anyone thinks it was human.


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