Content warning: includes examples, motivated by the difficulty of changing species’ common names, that mention ethnic slurs.
Other Warning: longer than usual, and somewhat technical. You’ll be most interested in this post if you’ve ever thought about using web searches to explore changes through time in linguistic usage, interest in fields or topics, and so on.
Over the last decade or so, my research interests have been sliding a little from science (evolutionary ecology and entomology) towards science studies. (Science studies, for those who don’t know the term, is more or less the study of how science is done and communicated.) This began, I’d say, when I was working on The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and thinking about the cultural norms we’ve developed around scientific writing; and it really took off when I was working on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider and thinking about the cultural norms we’ve developed around scientific naming. Beyond those two books, you’ve seen my dalliance with science studies in two preprints (this one about humour in titles of scientific papers, and this one about how the etymology of scientific names may influence scientific attention paid to species). Hey, I did warn you in my very first post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel that I reinvent myself often – as a consequence of having a sadly limited academic attention span.
In a post a couple of weeks ago, I built further on my interest in science studies and naming, asking whether and how we can change the common names of species. My analysis leant heavily on some web search utilities, which I used to track the usage of different English names for species through time. Because I know I’m not the only person to consider using web searches as a research tool, I thought it would be useful to lay out some of the things I’ve learned about these. Continue reading
Content warning: Discusses common names based on ethnic and other slurs and on the names of people with potentially upsetting histories.
Other warning: considerably longer than usual. But, I think, also considerably more interesting than usual.
Is the common name of a species (cougar, daisy, blue mussel, Swainson’s thrush) an unalterable part of our language, or can we change one? (We might want to, sometimes – most obviously, when a name is offensive.) The answer is more complicated than you might think. Today, a little background to explain those complications, and then some analysis of three cases where organizations have attempted to drive changes in common names.
We share the Earth with millions of other species, and they’re both fascinating (all of them!) and directly important to us (many of them). Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, Klaas’s cuckoo and I were featured on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog. You should go read that post – especially the part about Klaas’s cuckoo and the origins of its name. But here’s a little context.
It’s fashionable in some circles to bemoan the fact that many scientists* rarely cite literature older than a decade or two. There are, of course, many reasons older papers go uncited. Continue reading
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with eponymous scientific names. When I notice one, I often find myself trying to guess its origin. Sometimes I’m right, or at least close. Falco eleonorae was definitely not one of those times.
Falco eleonorae, or Eleonora’s Falcon, is a mid-sized falcon that breeds mostly in the Mediterranean and overwinters mostly in Madagascar. It’s a handsome bird whose name poses a question: who was Eleonora? Continue reading
Photos: Pulling in a gill net in Vatnshlíðarvatn; and a male arctic charr in spawning colour (S. Heard).
I’ve just come back from gill-netting arctic charr in Vatnshlíðarvatn, a small, shallow lake just west of Varmahlíð in northern Iceland. The charr in this lake are a pair of morphs (a diet specialist and a diet generalist), and the aim was to collect fish of each morph for stable isotope and genetic analysis. It was a sunny July morning (about 7 ºC, which isn’t bad for Iceland), the fish were beautiful, and I enjoyed the work thoroughly.
Those of you who know me are, by now, smelling a rat: I don’t work on fish. Continue reading
(Image: T. ignobilis debilis, Limones, Venezuela © barloventomagico CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr)
Latin names can roll beautifully off the tongue (the ant Monomorium minimum) or can celebrate the beauty of the organism named (the bird-of-paradise Paradisaea decora). Or not: consider the unfortunate black-billed thrush, Turdus ignobilis debilis. This is a common songbird of forests and secondary growth in northwestern South America. It may not be particularly showy, and it may not sing the world’s most beautiful song, but surely no creature could deserve the name Turdus ignobilis debilis?* Continue reading
Image credits: Vulture, by Dori (firstname.lastname@example.org), CC BY-SA 2.0. Zane Grey in 1895, in Penn’s baseball uniform (http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/d/archives/20051010001), public domain.
A couple of weeks ago I was in California, keeping my eyes peeled for interesting birds. Disappointingly, the first bird I saw was a starling – a bird I could have seen almost anywhere in the temperate world. The second was a turkey vulture. Vultures are common and ecologically important scavengers across most of the world*, although none occur in England or Scandinavia. There, eagles, kites, and corvids include carrion in their diets, but the avifauna lacks a carrion specialist – that niche is vacant.
This got me thinking. Continue reading
(Image by Dûrzan cîrano, from Wikipedia.org)
Our subject today is formal scientific names for species (or “Latin names”, although they need not actually be derived from Latin). Few things about biology seem to puzzle and annoy laypeople, not to mention undergraduate students, more than our habit of using long, arcane, and sometimes unpronounceable names for the species we study. (Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis, anyone?). We can explain why these names serve an essential purpose, and we can handle them more adroitly with experience; but if truth be told, we don’t necessarily enjoy using Latin names. But there are exceptions, and this post is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series celebrating wonderful Latin names. Continue reading