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What’s in a common name for species?

In my January 2020 blog, I covered some of the basics of how taxonomists go about creating scientific names for species. A recent discussion at the Zoo got me thinking about how we go about creating the common names for species. There are lots of arcane rules, and a few time-honored traditions, regarding scientific names. There really are no rules for common names, and that leads to some issues.

A primary problem with the issue simply involves differences in language, geography, and culture. For example, in the U.S. we have a bird we call a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), whereas the same species also occurs in Brazil where it is called coruja-buraqueira in Portuguese. While that is a literal translation of “burrowing owl” into Portuguese, translations can be quite misleading. In Mexico, virtually any lizard known or suspected of being venomous (e.g., beaded lizards, geckos, and more) typically are referred to as escorpión while the stinging arachnids that we call scorpions are alacrán. Big difference.

The International Ornithological Congress maintains a database of all recognized species of birds in the world, including their scientific names as well as their common names … in English. So, there are real-world problems with the entire concept of standardizing common names, and especially so in only a single language. Problems arise even within a country or region. For example, the lizard that I know as the brown basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus), a common species in Mexico and Central America, has been proposed by my colleagues to have the standard Spanish name passaríos (note: this translates roughly to “passes rivers” in reference to their ability to run across water); however, I have never heard anyone use that name in my 30 years of field work in Mexico or Guatemala. Instead, they typically are referred to as lagartija (meaning simply “lizard” in Spanish) or, among Kek’chi Mayans in Guatemala, I have heard the adults called cutete and the juveniles called pakmal. Mayan languages are so diverse that, traveling only a few dozen kilometers, often will find yourself among people speaking very different Mayan languages—and you can be certain that they will have a different name for the same animal.

The problem is no different even within the U.S., where we mostly speak the same language. The standardized English names proposed by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles tells us that our familiar ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) in Georgia is to be called eastern ratsnake. I’m not sure what to make out of the fact that everyone in Georgia that I know calls it a black ratsnake, a ratsnake, or a chicken snake. Drive to Florida and the same species no longer is black, so they call it a yellow ratsnake. Cottonmouth or water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus), anybody? And don’t even get me started on Texas Christian University naming their sports teams “Horned Toads” in reference to their local horned lizards (genus Phrynosoma); I’ll leave it to you to argue with Texans about what they should call their animals.

Taxonomists put a lot of effort into standardizing scientific names and, despite some really ugly disagreements sometimes, the efforts are valid so that scientists and conservationists can communicate about biodiversity. Organizations such as I mentioned above, and sometimes just independent authors, often devote considerable efforts into standardizing common names. These efforts also generate considerable disagreements and, as we have seen, do not transfer at all among languages or even regional cultures. I can see the point to try to standardize non-scientific names, but I will also admit that is sometimes seems futile. I mostly avoid the exercise (but see below!).

If we can agree that there is some utility in standardizing common names in various languages, I will here utter my plea that they at least make sense! I recently noticed that everyone’s favorite owl at the Zoo, the milky eagle owl (Bubo lacteus; named by taxonomist Temminck in 1820), appears on standardized names lists as Verreaux’s eagle owl. The scientific name clearly refers to milky (= lacteus), and it is a very large owl with whitish eyelids, so “milky eagle owl” seems like a good choice to me. So, who the heck was Verreaux and why do we associate their name with this bird? Note that Temminck did not name the bird Bubo verreauxi, in which case the name Verreaux’s eagle owl would be sensical and consistent. I was discussing this conundrum with Debbie Forde, Director of Animal Operations, recently and she found this website:
https://birdnamesforbirds.wordpress.com/historical-profiles/profiles-a-z/verreaux-jules-pierre/

From this we can infer that Jules Pierre Verreaux was a collector and dealer of animals and specimens, many of which made their way to major natural history museums. Coenraad Jacob Temminck was a Dutch ornithologist who may have received specimens from Verreaux, possibly including the specimens upon which he based the name Bubo lacteus. But I could not verify a connection between Verreaux and Temminck. It was very common in the 19th century for taxonomists in major museums to be working with specimens sold and shipped to them by itinerant collectors. In any case, Temminck never suggested anything to indicate that this bird should be called Verreaux’s eagle owl. As a taxonomist, he named it Strix lactea (genus later switched to Bubo; not relevant to our discussion) and, there on page 75 of this massive volume he associated the French common name Hibou lacté; I think you can guess how to translate that. I have no idea how Verreaux’s name became associated with this species. I think milky eagle owl is a far preferable name. 

I have seen this happen before and, I will admit, it really irritates me. There was an effort a number of years ago to create English common names for every species of amphibian in the world—an exhausting and rather pointless exercise in my opinion because why does an impossibly obscure little frog in Papua New Guinea need a name in English? I don’t think it needs a name in English, as the few people who ever will discuss it will either do so in a native Papuan language or use its accepted scientific name. That global effort wound up coining some rather senseless names, such as Bob’s robber frog for the Central American species that I know as Craugastor puntariolus. Who the heck is Bob (even more obscure than Verreaux; I gave up my search very quickly), and exactly what does this frog ever steal? The scientific name translates to something close to spotted (punctariolus) fleshy-bellied (Craugastor). I will admit that I can’t quite get the Crau- part of the name with my resources. In any case, “spotted fleshy-bellied frog” is a perfectly decent description of what this frog looks like. No need to invoke ridiculous terms like “robber” and refer to “Bob” who has no clear association with this species whatsoever.

Okay, now that I am done venting, I will tell you that I occasionally wind up in situations where I feel the need to create a common name, in English. Years ago, I had to change the scientific name of a common toad in Louisiana, Texas, and northern Mexico. Its scientific name has always been Incilius valliceps and everyone called it the Gulf Coast toad. When I changed the scientific name to Incilius nebulifer, I decided to suggest that we call in the coastal plain toad. This would leave the old names Incilius valliceps and Gulf Coast toad still associated with one another, for a species that does not occur in the U.S. as my work discovered. Well, everyone hated my suggestion and still call it the Gulf Coast toad. I tried. In another Zoo Atlanta anecdote, years ago we set up a habitat for a Panamanian toad that we had newly discovered and named as Incilius signifer. The habitat was ready and looked great and then we had to make an identification sign for it. We must have a common English name on our signs at the Zoo!  So, I had to make one up right there on the spot. I came up with leopard-bellied scrub toad, which reflects both the intent of its scientific name and also was a reasonable description of the animal. Everyone seemed happy, but I am quite certain that no one has ever actually used that name in either English, nor a Spanish translation of it. I tried.

So, next time you visit us at Zoo Atlanta, take note of the common names we use, and see if they make sense to you. Investigate the admittedly intimidating scientific names on our signs, and see if you can figure out why some taxonomist chose those names. It can add a fun and gleefully nerdy new layer to your visit! If you see me at the Zoo, grab me and let’s look at some names together and see if we can guess what the namer was thinking and whether the English name is sensical.

Joe Mendelson
Director of Research

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl