Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

A Rose By Any Other Name, Revisited

©1999 Steve Campbell,


I first wrote about the importance of understanding scientific names and why we use them in the May, 1998 issue of ETRHS Herp News. So, why write another?

Two reasons really. One, I needed more time for additional research and verify my findings. Two, the last article left some ideas rather vague and others completely unanswered.

As I said in the previous article, scientific names form binomial (two names), genus and species, or in the case of distinguishing subspeciation, trinomial (three) names, genus, species, and subspecies. Most scientific names are based on either Latin or Creek or may be a combination of both. Sometimes other languages are incorporated into forming these terms.

When using scientific names in print, they must be italicized, underIined or placed within (parentheses). If one is writing about an unknown species or is not specifying any particular species, one should use the abbreviation "sp." (Example: Lampropeltis sp.). If the subspecies is in question or not specified, use the abbreviation "ssp." (Example: Lampropeltis getula ssp.) After the genus has been written it may be referred to later by using only the first letter. Remember that the uppercase rule for genera still applies. (Example: L getula.) By the way, Lampropeltis is made from two Greek words and means "shiny shield."

Nomenclature does change and for various reasons. Most nonvenomous snakes discovered in North America in the early 18th century were assigned to the genus Coluber, Latin for snake. As their relationship to other species were determined, other genera began to appear. In January of 1909, John K. Strecker (considered to be the father of Texas herpetology and subject of a future article in this column) published a species inventory of herps he collected in Burnet County, Texas on trips he made in 1902 and 1906. During Strecker's day, coachwhips and racers were lumped together under the genus Zamenis, water snakes were assigned to Tropidonotus (later water snakes were transferred to the genus Natrix, Old World water snakes, but today they are in the genus Nerodia), and the Great Plains rat snake (which he refers to as Emory's pilot snake) was designated Coluber emoryi. The species name for the eastern or chain king snake and its allies started as L. getula, then it was L. getulus, and now it's L. getula, again. The reason for the change, or so I am told, has to do with gender agreement. As a career bachelor, I can appreciate the term gender disagreement all too well.

Some scientific names are actually mistakes. In his book, A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, 2nd edition (1989), Alan Tennant translates the scientific name of the western cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma. "In its scientific name, Agkis is a mistranslatlon of ancil, meaning 'forward'; odon refers to its teeth or fangs; and piscivorus means 'fish-eating." Leuco is "white' and stoma is mouth,' so the entire appellation accurately describes a forward-fanged, white-mouthed, fish-eating serpent. Cool, huh?

In the last article, I said that scholars from different countries used Latin in order to communicate clearly. Well, I'm reminded of a conversation that took place 10 years ago. My friend, Wade Meyer (currently the senior keeper of the reptile department at Waco's Cameron Park Zoo), and I were discussing herps (this was way back when fellow herpers were far and few between; before herping gained its cult status). The Wader was talking about something he called a Ha'-tear-o-don. "Ha'-tear-o-don," I kept repeating in my mind, "What the heck is a Ha'-tear-o-don. Sounds more like a dinosaur." A few moments later, a little 20-watt light bulb began to materialize above my head. Click! "Ooohhh!" I exclaimed, "You mean a Het-er-o-don! A hognose snake!"

So my dear faithful, I have misled you a bit. The use of Latin doesn't always guarantee concise communication. But I should point out that Latin was mandatory in those olden times. One was not considered truly educated unless one could speak fluent Latin. Students were trained to pronounce and conjugate with the eloquence of a Roman citizen. It's a shame that foreign language is not obligatory in public schools. I myself know just enough Spanish to get beat up. But what's truly amazing is that we, as Americans, receive 12 years of formal education and upon graduation can barely speak or write English. So I guess It doesn't really matter how you pronounce the words, just as long as you spell them correctly.

The genus for most rat snakes is Elaphe. I myself pronounce it ee-lay-fee, but I know others who sav ee-laa-fee or el-ah-fee. I know folks who pronounce Crotalus, the genus for large rattlesnakes, cro-ta-lus and some that say cro-tal-us. To-may-toe, to-mot-oh.

Below are some examples of Latin and Greek root words that are used in the formation of scientific names. This list deals with colors. Unfortunately, there is not enough room in this issue to include all the material I had in mind, so look toward future Issues of ETRHS Herp News for more root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

















Pale Yellow






















Just for grins, found what the names of a few Board of Directors mean In Latin or Greek. Neil (Greek) of the Nile; Seth (Greek) a sieve; Melissa (Greek) a honey bee or honey; Ball (Greek) to throw or strike. Despite my Scot heritage, I researched my name: Stephanus (Greek) meaning crown, camp (Greek) is a sea monster, and bell (Latin) for beautiful; so my name literally translates to "a beautiful sea monster with a crown."

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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