A Rose By Any Other Name, or Making Sense of Those Long, Funny Name We Give Herps
©1999 Steve Campbell,
When I first moved to Athens (TX) to begin to work at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, I asked many people if bowfin were a common species of fish in this area. This was consistently met by blank expressions followed by a confused response of, "Huh?" Sometime later I learned that in this neck of the wood, a bowfin is called a grinnell. Now, if I had asked about Amia calva, perhaps I would have been understood the first time. But then, no one really talks that way - do they?
Only herpers, my little seagulls. Only herpers.
We first enter the field of herpetology or herpetoculture, we start slowly and with the basics. Initially we learn how to group and identify the various herps in which we have an interest. We learn their common names, characteristics, what size they achieve, what to feed them and how to make them happy. Then we begin to accumulate even more data to confound the general layman. We learn scientific names.
When bird watchers are out in the field doing their thing, they don't say, "Look! There goes a Dendroica chrysoparia" or "Mimus polyglottos." They say, "Look! There goes a golden-cheeked warbler" or "mockingbird." And we're talking about a group of several million people who identify the tiniest and most insignificant chee-chee bird from three miles away using 10-power binoculars!
But herpers, ah, we are a special breed of enthusiast. We'll use words we can't even spell! But why do we do it? The answer to that question is, believe it or not, for simplicity. When we talk to each other, we know exactly what we are saying to one another.
The use of so-called common names can be both misleading and confusing. For example, a seahorse is a fish and not a variety of aquatic equine. A starfish is neither a star nor a fish. It's a member of the sea urchin clan. There are ample herpetological examples of this confusing practice. A horny toad is neither an amphibian nor particularly over-amorous. Do red-eared sliders really have ears? Glass snakes are really legless lizards with very long and very fragile tails. Does a Macklot's python look anything like Mr. Macklot? And never, NEVER, refer to any species as common (example, common snapping turtle, or common kingsnake) because they aren't always common, especially when you are actively searching for them in the field. Plus, what may be common in one part of the country ain't necessarily so in another part.
In addition, there can be multiple names for the same species. The flathead catfish is also known as a yellow cat(fish) and appaloosa cat(fish). Mountain lions, which aren't really lions at all, may also be called cougars, pumas, panthers or painters. Do you own a royal python or a ball python? Who cares?!? I don't like pythons anyway! Red rat snake vs. corn snake (I know it's a fragment, but bear with me). Someone recently offered an explanation for this one. I think you'll get a kick out of it. If its out in a barn or under a stack of old board, it's a red rat snake. If it's in a deli-dish on a table at an Expo, then it's a corn snake! Go figure. Did we change the name from chicken snake to rat snake because of the taste?
The origins of common names can be pretty far-fetched. Alan Tennant (Snakes of Texas, 1984, Texas Monthly Press) reports that residents of South Texas traditionally believe that Texas indigo snakes were purposefully brought to the United States from India to eliminate rattlesnakes. He relates another story where two ranch hands from the King Ranch explained that the indigo snake got its name due to how it behaved. "Anytime they see a hole, in dey go."
And now, a lucid moment to explain why we really do use scientific names.
In 1757, Carl von Linné, a Swedish botanist, published Systema Naturae. In his book, Linné developed a binomial, or two name, system for classifying each kind of plant or animal. The first name represents the genus, which is Latin for "birth" or "origin." The second name, specie, is Latin for "appearance" or "kind," represents the species. The specie name separates the individual organism from other varieties within a genus.
Linné determined that the genus should be written in upper case form and the specific name in lower case, even though it is a proper name. Both names are also to be written in italics. Linné, who Latinized his own name to Linnaeus, is known today as the Father of Taxonomy (the science of classifying organisms), established the fundamental rules of taxonomy. The first scientific name given to a species after January 1, 1758 (after the printing of the 10th edition of the Systema Naturae) stands, even though it may not be accurate in its description. The Linnaean system of classification ran into some difficulty until the establishment of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. The Commission was established to provide further guidelines for naming species and settle disputes concerning names. At the time the Linnaean system was being established, only about 50,000 plant and animals species were known to science. Today that figure exceeds one million.
Latin is generally used to form scientific names. Why? Latin, the native tongue of the Romans, is considered a dead language because it is no longer spoken. Unlike modern languages, the meanings of Latin words remain unchanged, nor are new words being created. To understand this concept, we need only to listen to our youth. To this segment of society, "bad" means "good" and "cool" means "hot." A good example of words being created in a modern language is the word "jeep." This is a word created during the second World War and is taken from the term "General Purpose Vehicle," or "G.P.", hence "jeep." How about the word "byte?" It wasn't around a hundred years ago. When was the last time you read Chaucer?
Another reason why Latin was chosen to form the bases of scientific names was due to the fact that attempting to make sense of the taxonomic order of things, Latin was the language of scholars. The learned of England, Germany, Italy and Russia could easily communicate with one another by speaking Latin. Today, it's binary and interfacing, but today is a different world from that of the 18th century. Greek, because it is a classical language, is also used to create scientific names. Other obscure languages may be used as well, such as the vocabulary of certain indigenous Americans.
Now, dear faithful, I hope you understand the significance, nay, the NEED to use proper phraseology when discussing herps with your peers. Of course, we still have to talk down to the heathens and barbarians who are not fortunate enough to be among the enlightened.
I, your fearless and undaunted leader, will be continuing this lesson in the near future with a list of some of the root words that taxonomists use while concocting scientific names for organisms. Watch for it. It is my heart-felt hope that you will be able to assimilate them into an understanding as to what those long, funny names mean. Once one knows what the Latin and Greek mean, learning them is made easier and more enjoyable.
The American Heritage Dictionary. 1983. Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
Gotch, A.F. 1986. Reptiles: Their Modern Names Explained. Blandford Press.
Tennant, Alan. 1984. Snakes of Texas. Texas Monthly Press.
At the time of this writing, Steve was president of the former East Texas Regional Herp Society. He is presently associated with the Dallas-Ft. Worth Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society.
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