Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Dead As A Dodo?

The Dodo Raphus cucullatus is extinct. But is the Latin I used there a dead language? Well if you’re a birder the answer is a resounding “No”. Read on. 

On this blog I sometimes include the Latin name/scientific name of a bird species. This is to add interest for the reader or to illustrate a particular feature of the bird. But for many birdwatchers the Latin names of birds found in books is a waste of space or a puzzle to be ignored. I rather like studying the scientific names I encounter, wondering about their origins and then often find myself Googling for an answer to satisfy my innate curiosity. 

A reader recently thanked me for explaining the use of the Latin name when relating my sighting of a Marsh Harrier, Circus aeruginosus, the scientific name that means “a rusty coloured hawk which flies in a circle”. So for Sallie in Canada and other readers who may be intrigued, puzzled, or simply curious about scientific names, here is a brief explanation of their usage and beginnings, mostly in relation to birds. 

Circus aeruginosus

Think back many years, before modern communications like the Internet, the telephone, widely available books, newspapers and magazines, or beyond that even, when the spoken word was the only way to describe a bird, plant or animal and when many names might be in use for the same thing. 

A solution was proposed by the Swedish biologist Carl van Linné, usually known by the Latin version of his name Linnaeus. He proposed that all species of plant and animal should be identified by a unique Latin name in a standard form. Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae was first published in Latin in 1735. The most important version, the tenth edition of 1758 is still considered as the starting point for modern day zoological nomenclature. Linnaeus helped future research into the natural history of man by describing humans Homo sapiens just as he described any other plant or animal. The question of the origin of man may have begun with Linnaeus and later continued by Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin and others in the early 1800s. This later culminated in the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. 

Linnaeus’ naming system consists of two parts: the name of the genus, or group of organisms, followed by a name identifying the species within the genus. So for example the Mallard is allocated to genus Anas “fresh-water duck”, and is called Anas platyrhynchos - broad-billed duck. The Latin generic name is a noun and the specific name an adjective, just as in English, except that in Latin the noun comes first. 

Anas platyrhyncos

In the written form we italicise scientific names so as to separate the species from the common name and also to show we are using Linnaeus’ system. Using the Latin or scientific name in text, discussion or debate avoids ambiguity between different continents, cultures and languages. For instance, and by using a familiar species to illustrate the point, in Great Britain Pluvialis squatarola is known in modern English as Grey Plover. In North America the exact same species is known as Black-bellied Plover but retains the Latin/scientific name. 

A few scientific names are original Latin as used by the Romans for their everyday birds. These are usually their Latin generic names, such as Cygnus (swan), Columba (pigeon), Passer (sparrow) or Ardea (heron). In Roman times people were familiar a few dozen species of birds only, but over the next hundreds of years bird names both stuck and became more specific by the use of the Latin genus together with Latin identifiers - e.g. Ardea cinerea, Grey Heron, Columba palumbus, Wood Pigeon, or Passer domesticus House Sparrow. 

Ardea cinerea

Other scientific names come from classical Greek where the choice of names gives the impression that Linnaeus used Latin as much as possible and then resorted to Greek when the Latin ran out. Linnaeus and other early naturalists used these mainly Greek words to apply to otherwise anonymous birds, having turned the Greek into a Latin form. In the case of harriers, and to return to the second paragraph above, the Greek “kirkos” became the Latin “circus”. The word was applied to a hawk which flew in a circular manner, Circus aeruginosus, the Marsh Harrier, as well as to a similar but blue-coloured hawk Circus cyaneus, the Hen Harrier. Both species were probably familiar to Linnaeus and other naturalists of the time who recognised the need to differentiate these two as well as many other birds. 

Nowadays there are about 10,000 bird species on Earth, plus millions of other forms of life, either now extinct, very much alive, or yet to be discovered. All need classification through a naming system able to identify them as uniquely separate and where with a little invention, imagination, and knowledge of the species, Linnaeus’ system comes into its own. 

Here are just a few birds that readers will recognise together with the species’ scientific names, meaning and a brief explanation of its origins. 

Birds named for their appearance:
  • Common Coot  Fulica atra  - a black coot
  • Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca  - a dusky black duck
Birds named for their behaviour: voice, display, feeding preferences or habitat, etc: 
  • Hoopoe Upupa epops - the Latin is onomatopoeic, a bird named for its repetitive call of  “hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop” 
  • Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus - a mistletoe-eating thrush
Bird names based on geography:
  • Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica - Lapland godwit 
  • Fulmar Fulmaris glacialis - a northern seabird, an icy fulmar 
Birds named after or people, usually the person, mostly an ornithologist, who first identified the species to be scientifically different from a closely related one: 
  • Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris  bairdii - a grey-coloured waterside bird named after Spencer Fullerton Baird a 19th century naturalist
  • Hume’s Warbler Phylloscopus humei - a "leaf watcher" named after the ormithologist Allan Octavian Hume 
Upupa epops

Taxonomy, the branch of science that encompasses the description, identification, nomenclature, and classification of organisms is a large and varied topic full of sometimes complex ideas. It’s a subject that will crop up from time to time on Another Bird Blog but Wikipedia is a good and recommended starting point for readers who wish to explore further.

Now forgive me. I'm off to Greece for a while where I'm hoping to brush up on my Greek, grab a few birds and to top up my sun tan.


Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Thank you Phil -- I've bookmarked this post so I can re-read and reference it easily. I do remember learning about Linnaeus at some time in my distant past -- and knew he was from Sweden. . I really appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge. have fun in Greece!

eileeninmd said...

Hello Phil, have a great trip. Greece sounds wonderful!

Linda said...

Phil, I hope that you have a safe and happy trip! If I were able to travel, Greece and England are at the top of my list! Enjoy your time! :)

Margaret Adamson said...

Very well explained Phil and have a ovely holiday in Greece

David Gascoigne said...

Have a great time in Greece, Phil. It's not a country I have ever been to so you'd better take lots of pictures so that I can enjoy it through your eyes,

Stuart Price said...

Enjoy Greece Phil........

Jarek said...

Great shots!

Lowcarb team member said...

Such a lot of good information here Phil, thanks.

Enjoy your Greek holiday, safe travels.

All the best Jan

Prunella Pepperpot said...

Such a wonderful informative post. I hope your enjoying your holiday :)

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