KEY POINTS

  • Researchers discovered a new ant species in Ecuador
  • They gave it the name Strumigenys ayersthey, notably using the suffix "-they"
  • It may be the only species in the world to currently have "-they" as a suffix
  • Singer from the band R.E.M., Michael Stipe, also played a small role in the study

Researchers discovered a new ant species in Ecuador and gave it a special name that honors gender equality. It may be the only species today to have a non-binary scientific name.

Strumigenys is among the most diverse ant genera, with over 850 species belonging to it, the authors of a new study, published in Zookeys, said. During a 2018 field trip to Reserva Río Canandé in Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador, Philipp Hoenle of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, collected a live strumigenys specimen that was later preserved in a vial of ethanol.

Hoenle sent the sample to taxonomic expert and eventual study co-author, Douglas Booher of Yale University, to confirm whether it was truly a new species, the university said in a news release. Sure enough, it turned out to be unique from the many others in the genera.

Now identified as a new species, the ant was given a rather special name. Typically, new species are named after people and end with either -ae for females and -i for males, Pensoft Publishers explained in a blog. However, citing a previous study, the authors clarified that the rule does not specify the need to Latinize the names, "therefore no need to assign gender."

As such, they gave the reddish-brown ant the name Strumigenys ayersthey, notably ending it with "they" for gender equality. According to Pensoft Publishers, the new species is possibly the only one in the world to have the "-they" suffix.

"Many cultures have recognized a spectrum of genders between and beyond the binary of male and female," the researchers wrote.

"The 'they' recognizes non-binary gender identifiers in order to reflect recent evolution in English pronoun use - 'they, them, their' and address a more inclusive and expansive understanding of non-neutral gender identification," they added.

The name also honors Jeremy Ayers, whom Yale University described as a "philosopher, multi-media artist, and political activist." He had worked with Andy Warhol and gave rise to a "thriving artistic community" in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. He was also a common friend of both Booher and lead singer of the Alternative rock band R.E.M, Michael Stipe, who lent a hand in writing the etymology portion of the study, Pensoft noted.

"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, as per the Yale University news release.

"He gave people the freedom to be who they wanted to be," Booher added.

Giving the new species such a name celebrates both "biological and human diversity," Booher said, Pensoft Publishers noted.

Scientifically, discovering such a rare ant also shows the importance of conserving places such as the region where the ant was discovered -- a location that's both exceptionally diverse but also among the most threatened, the researchers concluded.

Ants Representative image of ants. Photo: Pixabay