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  • Writer's pictureIsaac yelchin

What's my name??

In every language there are different names for different animals. Some animals are endemic to a place. Endemic meaning they only exist in that area and nowhere else in the world. Chameleons for example are endemic to the island of Madagascar. We name the creatures we discover to differentiate and discuss them. Originally we probably named them to help with hunting, or avoiding them. In fact many other species also name different creatures, lemurs, gibbons, among others, have different words and calls for snakes, hawks, and humans.

Since there are all these different names for creatures things may get confused. The chameleon which only exists in Madagascar can be simpler since it doesn’t exist in other parts of the world; there are different names for it in a number of different languages. However, there are lots of different types of chameleons, the short-nosed, the long-nosed, and the Parson’s chameleon to name a few. So even within the language, the specifics can become diluted. Parson’s chameleon adds an interesting point to this debacle because it is named after Parson. Not because he raised the chameleon and it is his, but because he first discovered, and named it. Local people of Madagascar had seen it before and probably had their own name for it, but he was the first to add it to the running list of species that is collectively accepted by all scientists.

This list was first formed by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 as a way to rectify the global confusion between scientists. Imagine this fictional but useful example: a German, French, and Bosnian scientist are attempting to discuss the adaptations of the Eurasian Sparrowhawks talons. Yet the German word for Sparrowhawk may be similar to the French word for Pigeon, and in Bosnian this translates to Grasshopper. So when the German scientist says the Sparrowhawks feet have sharp talons used for striking and killing prey, the Bosnian scientist will be very confused as Grasshoppers do not have talons at all, and for the most part are herbivorous and don’t kill any prey whatsoever.

Linnaeus grew tired of such ridiculous debate and put a system together that was in the common language of Latin. This way these German, French, and Bosnian scientists could be sure that they were discussing the Sparrowhawk. Not only did this system solve the issue of miscommunication but it helped formulate a tree of relation between different species. Take the chameleons mentioned, in Linnaeus’s nomenclature the short-nosed, long-nosed, and Parson’s chameleons names read like this: Calumma parsonii, Calumma fallax, and Calumma nasutum. Calumma stands for the genus of chameleons. This way it is clear that the species in question are Calumma or chameleons, and the latter portion of the name is the distinct species.

This nomenclature extends backwards as well to cover the full classification of each organism. It will detail the larger categories, that the chameleon is a reptile, that it has a backbone, that it is in the animal kingdom. This way Linnaeus’s naming allows for things to be properly discussed through translation and easily related to other species.

Although this fantastic system of naming exists, there still are problems today. The Latin names are quite useful, however many modern scientists and people do not know them off hand and use the common names. Common names are the ones that started this whole article, they are the local names for the animals in an area. They can easily get twisted and turned and confused.

Two great examples of this are the Great blue heron (above), and the Green heron (below). When you try to find these two birds based on their names in the wild, I wish you luck! The Great blue heron is as you can see below, not blue, but grey. In England this bird is referred to as the Gray heron, which is a bit more accurate. Maybe America's desire for independence forced this incorrect naming, not wanting to use anything the British do.

The green heron is clearly red, brown, and grey. So why is it named the green heron? Because if viewed with the sun at a very specific angle its feathers will shine green. So maybe the person who named it was standing at that very angle. It isn’t the end of the world but it can cause some unnecessary confusion. That is why if you use the Latin names for these herons, Butorides virescens and Ardea herodias, green and great blue in that order, you can be sure of the species in question. As the classifications for Linneaus’s nomenclature are determined by concrete evidence like DNA, bone structure, and other physical traits that cannot be confused by the angle of light. I encourage you to observe carefully whenever you see an animal as you might discover something a bit silly like the names of these herons.

Photos taken by Alex Havasi

Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.

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