A German entomologist and a research associate at Yale University, with some help from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, have named a new ant species Strumigenys ayersthey, after Charles “Jeremy” Ayers, the artist and political activist who was part of Andy Warhol’s legion of “Superstars” as the gender-bending Silva Thin.
The story was reported this week in the scientific research publication EurekAlert!
After entomologist Phillip Hoenle discovered the ant in a rainforest in Ecuador, he sent a specimen to Douglas B. Booher, a research associate in the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, to confirm if it was really a new species. After making the confirmation, Booher reached out to Stipe, a close friend of the late Ayers, to receive his blessing for the new name.
The son of a civil rights advocate and a religion professor at the University of Georgia, Ayers became a part of Warhol’s New York City crew in the early Seventies, performing in drag as Thin with exaggerated feminine features, a silk shirt and tie, and a trademark cigarette. Ayers was also a prominent songwriter, and by the late Seventies, he had returned to Athens, Georgia, where he helped foster a vibrant music and arts scene and co-wrote songs for R.E.M., the B-52’s, and more.
Later in life, Ayers performed in “Jeremy’s Dance,” a video art piece by Stipe. The installation was shown at Moogfest 2016, shortly after Ayers suddenly died from a seizure at the age of 68.
“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 told EurekAlert!. “He created the salon, laid the trails; he was the connector, the queen ant if you will, the bringer-togetherer.”
Booher himself had been a part of the Athens scene in the early Nineties, after earning his bachelor’s degree in ecology at the University of Georgia. Rather than pursue a Ph.D., he instead became a local building contractor, and for the next 12 years ran his own flooring company in Athens while moonlighting as a DJ and club dancer on the weekends. He even participated in a dance video filmed in Ayers’ backyard, and in turn, the former Superstar helped foster Booher’s fascination with entomology.
“He knew I loved insects and he had recently bought a book on the Chinese culture of keeping crickets for their sounds,” Booher said, describing how Ayers showed him and Stipe the book one evening. “He was also endlessly fascinated with nature. He knew it would bring me joy. … He gave people the freedom to be who they wanted to be.”
Booher eventually completed his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology in the early 2010s and found work at the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change as a postdoctoral associate. When deciding on the name for the new ant species, he and Hoenle considered the name Strumigenys ayers, but decided to choose a Latin name that would honor people across the gender spectrum, adopting the new suffix -they.
“Naming species in honor of people is a centuries-old tradition among taxonomists,” Hoenle said. “To honor someone means to respect their self-identity, and gender is part of that.”
Booher added: “I knew Jeremy, and knew of no other human that better represented the pan and inclusive world of humans. He was also a lover of biodiversity, so it just seemed to fit.”