August 2011 – What’s In a Name? – by Nick Tomalin

Turdus merula. Meaningless to many of you, I suspect, but not unfamiliar. Turdus merula is, after all, the blackbird. How many of us, whilst participating in the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ in January, yelled ‘merula’ as our friendliest thrush appeared? Why risk the socially inappropriate announcement that you’ve correctly identified a ‘Turdus’ in your garden? For many of us, the scientific name is, and always will be, fairly redundant. But in some respects, this classification is even more important than the common (and often English) name. So what use is the Latin, or scientific, name to us these days?

This classification was popularised in the 18th Century by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, who saw sense in using a system known as ‘binomial nomenclature’ to describe species. This was based on using a genus name (the first of the two names) to identify the family from which the organism came, and then adding a specific name, or epithet, to determine the species.

This is one of the reasons that this system is so useful. It allows taxonomists to identify closely related species and group them together. For example, all of the British thrushes (song and mistle thrush, redwing, fieldfare, blackbird and ring ouzel) share the family name Turdus. The English names give no indication of how closely related a blackbird and a ring ouzel are, but this is made clear when using binomial nomenclature. Equally, the inappropriately named American robin is also a Turdus, but would have us believe it shared more in common with our native red-breasts.

A more obvious use of the scientific names is that it provides a standard baseline for naming species that can be shared regardless of language. This was brilliantly exemplified to me recently when working alongside a Romanian conservationist who knew only the Latin names. I was mystified as to which species she was referring to, and she was equally dumbfounded by my use of common names, until we discovered that we had in fact been discussing the same species! There is a constant debate about which common names should be used (who’d be a loon instead of a diver?!) but considerably less regarding scientific names.

Another feature of this system is that the literal translations of names into English can provide useful identification hints to look for, although this can also cause confusion. As I’ve mentioned before on this very site, the Latin name for the Mediterranean gull is Larus melanocephalus, which translates as ‘black-headed gull’ – correct in that it does indeed display a black head (in summer!) but also allowing confusion with another species commonly known as ‘black-headed gull’ (which, incidentally, has a brown head in summer, and has a Latin name that translates as something else entirely!). In Cornwall we have the majestically named Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – the chough. The common name potentially hints at the sound made by these birds, but may be a derivative of an old name for another relation, the jackdaw. The Latin name provides much more mystery, as it translates as ‘fire raven’, due to a slightly inexplicable belief that these birds have pyromaniac tendencies.

Another story surrounds that most genteel sporting pursuit, Subbuteo. As a child I loved doing battles on the green canvas, often claiming magnificent and unlikely FA Cup Final victories for Swindon Town FC against the might of Man Utd or Arsenal. The inventor if this glorious pastime originally wanted to call it ‘The Hobby’. But the name was unavailable and he instead resorted to using the Latin name for the falcon, Subbuteo. Incidentally, since the Latin name for buzzard is buteo, it is not an unreasonable assumption that a hobby is reminiscent of a small buzzard.

Helpfully, many of them, like chough, are repetitive phrases, and it is certainly easier to remember Bubo bubo (eagle owl) than Haematopus ostralegus (oystercatcher). Most of the names that I can recall are either repetitive, are species that I’ve worked with, or are beautiful or memorable in their own right. Some of my personal favourites for you to look up include Troglodytes troglodytes (a cave dweller indeed!), Recurvirostra avosetta (obvious when you see its bill), Gallinago gallinago (imperiously named wader) and Puffinus puffinus (go on, have a guess! Its guaranteed to come up in quizzes).

There’s no denying that the vast majority of us will cope just fine without knowing a Hippolais from an Acrocephalus, but for those with a specialist interest, it may just be worth that game of ‘know your scientific names’. You never know when learning your Latin vocabulary will pay off!

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