Paris (AFP)

Sexist stereotypes infiltrated into natural history museums: Birds and mammals males are over-represented in their collections, which is likely to skew research from these specimens, reveals a study Wednesday.

A team of researchers has analyzed nearly 2.5 million bird and mammal specimens collected by five major museums (London, Paris, New York, Washington and Chicago) since the 18th century, mostly through hunting and trapping .

Why this novel approach? "We are interested in gender bias in the scientific community, where there is, for example, an over-representation of white male researchers in high-ranking positions, so we were interested to see if this male bias was reflected in museum collections. "says Natalie Cooper, researcher at the Natural History Museum in London and lead author of the study in Proceedings of Royal Society B."

Large-scale mapping, with sex statistics, was all the more necessary as "the number of studies using these specimens (lent by museums for research, EdR) continues to increase," according to the authors.

Of the large sample analyzed, when sex is identified, 40% of birds and 48% of mammals, on average, are females. This percentage varies according to classifications, and is particularly low in many cases, such as passerines (9.7% females), black flycatchers (11.5%), bats (9.9%) , sheep (24%), weasels (24%) ...

Another example: less than 40% of the artiodactyls (family of ungulates) are females, while in wild populations, they are the majority.

- Hunting geared towards males -

These disproportions appear to have been deliberately selected at the time of the hunt, because they are directed towards species where males are a more visible target: more impressive in size (ungulates), with more colorful ornaments (the bird of paradise ), more prominent features (deer antlers) ...

But selection can also be "accidental" if the animals are collected by trapping, depending on the behavior of the males, or if it is difficult to distinguish between the two sexes, or simply when the male population is larger, the study continues. .

In birds, males are more caught in nets because they come out, "attracted by the shouts of other males, to attack and mark their territory, while females do not respond to these calls", advance Natalie Cooper.

"For a long time," says the biologist, "it was thought that females were not screaming, but today there is more and more evidence that they too are screaming, and perhaps also in a territorial logic. could help to catch more ".

Inequality in collections is likely to affect several disciplines such as taxonomy (species classification), where the under-represented sex is harder to distinguish, genomics, where genes vary by sex, parasitology, where males are generally less resistant to infections, etc.

"By ignoring females, we do not have a complete picture of life, and this is essential to predict, among other things, how body size could respond to climate change," said Natalie Cooper.

"Look at how female animals are considered chaste, subject to males, without control over their mating, which reflects gender stereotypes in humans in the nineteenth century, not reality in nature," she argues.

In the nineteenth century, those in charge of museum collections were "mostly men". And if sociology has changed since, "it has not been reflected in the collections," she laments.

For the authors of the study, museum professionals must "become aware" of these stereotypes, and in the future have a more balanced approach, both to improve the reliability of research and knowledge of biodiversity.

© 2019 AFP