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Sri Lanka scientists stand by naming of new geckos amid nationalist criticism

  • The recent naming of six day geckos endemic to Sri Lanka after historical figures has sparked controversy, with ultra-nationalist groups alleging malicious intent on the part of the researchers.
  • Scientists, however, are standing in solidarity with the research team, supporting the naming of the new species after forgotten heroes as an act to immortalize their legacy in Sri Lankan history.
  • A leading researcher says the criticism of the naming is “steeped in politics,” coming as it does amid a climate of nationalist posturing ahead of elections later this year.

COLOMBO — Scientists in Sri Lanka continue to voice their support of a colleague under fire from nationalist figures for naming six newly discovered gecko species after a series of historical national heroes.

Sameera Suranjan Karunarathne was the lead researcher of a 10-person team that discovered the new species of day geckos during a survey of reptiles in more than 100 locations across Sri Lanka in 2017.

Their findings were published in the journal Vertebrate Zoology this August, but the naming of the new species, intended to honor figures from the country’s mythical past and its struggle against colonialism, has sparked nationalist outrage during an election year.

“The idea was not to create a controversy but to highlight Sri Lanka’s reptilian diversity and high endemism,” Karunarathne told Mongabay.

Two of the new geckos, Cnemaspis nandimithrai and C. gotaimbarai, are named after Nandimithra and Gotaimbara, two legendary fighters from the Ten Giant Warriors who served the ancient Sinhala king Dutugamunu, the island’s ruler from 161 to 137 B.C.E.

The four others are named in honor of lesser-known heroes from the Uwa-Wellassa Rebellion of 1817-1818, when Sri Lankans rose up against the British colonial power: C. kohukumburai (after Kohukumbure Walawwe Rate Rala), C. hitihami (Meegahapitiye Walawwe Hitihami Mudiyanselage Rate Rala), C. butewai (Butewe Rate Rala), and C. kivulegedarai (Kivulegedara Mohottala).

Kokagala, home to Cnemaspis Gotaimbarai, or Gotaimbara’s day gecko, a newly discovered species. The region is of immense archaeological and historical significance. Image courtesy of Majintha Madawala.

Karunarathna, a native of the Uwa-Wellassa region, said he wanted to draw attention to the little-known heroism of the local fighters, whose names remained on a list of “traitors” to the British crown until 2016, when they were cleared by a presidential decree.

But some in the country’s political establishment have sought to seize on the issue to burnish their nationalist credentials ahead of elections later this year, by accusing Karunarathna and his team of dishonoring the historical heroes by naming geckos after them. Wimal Weerawansa, a member of parliament, called the naming decision disgraceful, while an ultra-conservative religious group has complained to the police chief in writing.

Fellow scientists have come out in force to denounce the complaints as baseless.

“It seems some people hold the notion that it is an honor only to be named after a big animal,” said herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe, known as “Sri Lanka’s Darwin” because of the number of species he has described over the years.

“There is some fixation about the physical size and that’s why geckos being named after national heroes has become a concern for pseudo-nationalists. For scientists, all species hold significant value as we recognize biodiversity and their contribution to the environment.”

Jagath Gunawardane, a veteran lawyer and environmentalist, played down the outcry over the naming as “uninformed and malicious.”

“The formal naming of a species after a person or place is an attempt to immortalize a certain name,” said Gunawardane, who has a rare shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s peak wilderness named after him, Pseudophilautus jagathgunawardanai. “I am deeply honored, not insulted,” he added.

According to Chandrika M. Nanayakkara, head of the department of plant sciences at the University of Colombo, scientific naming of species is a privilege accorded to the person who introduces that new species to the world. “The naming is done in accordance with globally accepted rules of scientific nomenclature,” she said.

The same species can have different names in different places, but scientific naming gives it a globally accepted single identification, she said. Plants are named according to the International Code of Nomenclature for Fungi, Algae and Plants, while animals are named according to an agreed set of principles contained in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

“The naming of a species, be it an animal or a plant, is a procedural act that eventually confers a global identity on a species from which it will be identified across the world thereafter,” researcher Karunarathne said.

Karunarathna had previously named another species of geckoCnemaspis godagedarai, after Godagedara Rate Adikaram, a hero of the Uwa-Wellassa Rebellion, in a move that didn’t spark any controversy. Similarly, there was no resistance when Wickramasinghe named a shrub frog as Pseudophilautus puranappu, to honor Weera Puran Appu, who was executed by the British for his role in leading the Matale Rebellion of 1848.

Kivulegedara Rate Rala played a significant role in the Uwa-Wellassa Rebellion of 1817-1818, for which the researchers chose to honor him by naming Cnemaspis kivulegedarai after him. Image courtesy of Sameera Suranjan Karunarathna.

In 2007, a day gecko was named after the legendary King Dutugamunu himself, Cnemaspis gemunu, and went unremarked.

Like these species, the newly described geckos “will now become a perpetual memory and will become part of the global online database, Zoobank, the official registry of zoological nomenclature,” said Gunawardane, the environmentalist and lawyer.

Wickramasinghe said the current controversy was unfortunate, uninformed and steeped in politics. He said various plants and animals had been named after religious leaders, philosophers, political leaders and celebrities, and that any of these could be construed as “non-flattering” by “groups with vested interests.”

Among the better-known examples is a beetle in Poland named after one of the country’s native sons, Pope John Paul II (Aegomorphus wojtylai). There’s also a spider named after former U.S. president Barack Obama (Aptostichus barackobamai), and another spider, Anelosimus nelsoni, named after South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

“Clearly, those who target scientists for naming geckos after national figures have no idea about the contents of the research paper,” Wickramasinghe said.

“It’s best if we do not have to hear comments from politicians who [don’t know the least] thing about scientific naming of species and expect to find these unique geckos next to their toilet bowls. They cannot: these are point-endemic species found in a biodiversity-rich but highly restricted habitat. It’s best if these critics first read the contents of the research paper.”

Banner image of Cnemaspis nandimitrai, a day gecko named after one of the 10 loyal warriors of King Dutugamunu, who ruled Sri Lanka from 161 to 137 B.C.E., courtesy of Nimantha Abeyrathne.

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