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What's in a name?

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Science  27 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6225, pp. 941-943
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6225.941

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Summary

Scientists once shied away from naming research animals, and many of the millions of mice and rats used in U.S. research today go nameless, except for special individuals. But a look at many facilities suggests that most of the other 891,161 U.S. research animals—including nonhuman primates, dogs, pigs, rabbits, cats, and sheep—have proper names. Mice are Harold, Copernicus, or Dudley. Monkeys are Nyah or Nadira. One octopus is called Nixon. Animals in research are named after shampoos, candy bars, whiskeys, family members, movie stars, and superheroes. These unofficial names rarely appear in publications, except sometimes in field studies of primates. But they're used daily. Is this practice good or bad for research? Some scientists worry that names lead to anthropomorphizing and carry associations that could trigger bias. But others argue that animals that are named, and therefore seen as individuals, may be tended more carefully, making them less stressed. That's better for the animals' welfare as well as for study, these scientists say.

  • * Michael Erard is based in South Portland, Maine, and is the author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners.