Strumigenys ayersthey: Ant given world's first gender-neutral scientific name

REM ant Jeremy Ayers
Jeremy Ayers, R.E.M. and Strumigenys ayersthey. Photo credit: Getty Images/Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Yale University

A new species of ant has been given a gender-neutral name, a first in the scientific world.

Strumigenys ayersthey was discovered by German entomologist Philipp Hoenle in 2018, and named by Yale University taxonomic expert Douglas Booher and one of the world's most famous LGBTQ+ rock singers.

Dr Booher recognised Hoenle had discovered a new species, but instead of giving it a Latin suffix ending in -ae or -i, as is tradition, he went with -they. 

But that's not all - he named it after Jeremy Ayers, a gay man and human rights activist who performed as Silva Thin with infamous New York pop artist Andy Warhol.

"He identified as a gay man outside of his Warhol character, but I'm naming it after him with the suffix added to include all non-binary people for his activism," said Booher, who knew Ayers before he died in 2016.

The celebrity connection doesn't end there. Ayers was from Athens, Georgia, which in the late 1970s gave rise to alternative rock pioneers such as the B-52s and and R.E.M. Ayers contributed to some of the two bands' recordings, and even had writing credits on a few R.E.M. tunes. 

R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe - also gay - contributed to the scientific paper describing the new species, explaining why Ayers' name was chosen.

"His curiosity for every single person he ever met was the foundation of a fascinating and cross-cultural network of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, often with Jeremy at the very center of several overlapping colonies," Stipe said in a statement.

"He created the salon, laid the trails; he was the connector, the queen ant if you will, the bringer-togetherer."

Dr Booher said Ayers was "endlessly fascinated with nature". 

"He was also a lover of biodiversity, so it just seemed to fit."

Hoenle, who first discovered the ant, approved of Stipe and Booher's choice.

"To honour someone means to respect their self-identity, and gender is part of that."

Strumigenys ayersthey
Strumigenys ayersthey. Photo credit: Yale University

In a statement, Yale University said a 2007 publication "clarified that the International Code of Nomenclature did not require that new species carry Latin suffixes based on the gender of the individual being honoured".

As for the ant, it was found in the Chocó region of Ecuador. Ayersthey was deemed a new species because of its "predominately smooth and shining cuticle surface sculpturing and long trap-jaw mandibles", which differ to other Strumigenys species. 

The research was published in journal ZooKeys on Wednesday.