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