What’s in a Name?

Posted By admin on Nov 11, 2011 | 0 comments


Biologists and naturalists alike often times choose to use what is often referred to as the scientific name when talking about a specific species. To some this may seem rather high brow or elitist with little purpose. No doubt that Latin is a dead language and that the scientific nomenclature can be a bit mysterious to those not steeped in its purpose. On wildlife expeditions, we often times find ourselves discussing the purpose and usefulness of such a naming system. This entry into our Naturalist Notebook will hopefully shed some light on the matter.

Some species are what we call “endemic” to a place. That means they are found nowhere else in the world. Take the Outer Banks Kingsnake for instance. Whether you call it by that name or Lampropeltis getula sticticeps, snake enthusiasts and herpetologists alike will know what your referring to. Well, that is if they have even heard of this little King.

Other species though are not quite that simple. What about species that transcend multiple countries, languages, and continents? The osprey is a perfect example of this. A widely distributed bird found across the globe, suddenly we find ourselves faced with the challenge of keeping up with what each culture that sees this bird happens to call it. This is even more important when it comes to academic or scientific research. Just here in North America we find three common names for this bird. On the East, traditionally the osprey has been known as the fish hawk. In the Pacific Northwest on the other hand, these birds have gone by the name seahawk. Most people in the US have heard of the football team the Seattle Seahawks. However most folks living on the East coast have no idea that this is the very same bird as their beloved fish hawk or osprey.

The osprey is a migratory species which only confounds the problem. So sure, we can narrow down the name of this bird to three basic ones here in the US, but the osprey here on the Outer Banks will wind up in any number of South American countries where it is officially called Gavilan Pescador, unless of course it winds up in Brazil where Portuguese is the national language and thus takes on the name of Águia-pesqueira.

Even in England, where we draw a strong influence for our animal names from, people cannot decide what they want to call this bird. In England we find names such as the bald buzzard, fishing eagle, eagle fisher, fish hawk, mullet hawk, and even the old English Bleria Pyttel which is also used for the red kite. Now if we take into consideration the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish names we can add another 16 names to the list of what you might hear an osprey called in the UK.

By now I’m sure you can see how complicated things can get when it comes to names here. This was the dilemma that Carl von Linne, otherwise known as Linnaeus, attempted to overcome with the creation of the binomial nomenclature. With the basic classification of species in the order of Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species, Linnaeus took the last two in this list, genus and species, to create the so-called scientific name of the species.

So instead of the endless list of possible names that we might call the osprey, Pandion haliaetus becomes the official name used throughout the world from Japan to North Carolina.

Now when we look at the “scientific name” of the osprey, its easy to assume that it has less utility than some of the other more creative names. However, if we dissect this name than we find that it does in fact serve its purpose. . .

With the osprey, we find a species of bird that is neither hawk nor eagle. This means that the osprey sits in a genus all by itself which gave its “namer” a little room for creativity here. In this case Marie-Jules-Cesar Lelorgne de Savigny, the ornithologist who had this honor, chose the name Pandion – from the mythical king of Athens – for the genus. Now this is not much help here by any means but when we get to the species things begin to make a lot more since. The haliaetus comes from the Greek “halos” meaning “sea” and “aetus” meaning “eagle”. So here we see that the species is the “sea eagle.”

As I just mentioned, the osprey is not an eagle at all, in fact this species separated from the rest of the Accipitridae raptors around 24-30 million years ago. Despite this fact, the latin name for this bird serves as a description of the species – which is the ultimate goal of the scientific naming jargon. A few other local examples of are Ursus americanus, Typhus latifolia, and Agkistrodon piscivorus. Ursas americanus, what we call the black bear translates simply to the American bear because its the only true American species of bear (Ursus). Typhus latifolia is the broad leafed cattail. Typhus means everywhere, because this stuff grows everywhere, lati is latin for broad, and folio for leaf. The Agkistrodon piscivorus is translated to the hooked tooth fish eater, a.k.a the cottonmouth or water moccosin.

Now going back to the osprey, we know now why biologists prefer to use the scientific name for species, but what of the common name osprey itself? Where did this come from, considering some of the more descriptive common names such as the seahawk and fish hawk – which both make more sense especially considering how we name this species.

There are three possibilities to the origin of the name osprey. The first and by far the most commonly cited in popular literature and by naturalists is that osprey is derived from the latin ossifragus meaning bone breaker. Allegedly the Elder Pliny referred to this bird as ossifragus and eventually it was corrupted into osprey. Interestingly, the Fish Crow also uses this word in its name: Corvis ossifragus.

Other potential origins place this word, once again as a corruption of ospreit, the Old French for “bird of prey” which was derived from the latin avis praedae. Yet another possibility is that it derived from the Irish Ospróg.

Obviously the osprey is a bird whose name is steeped in mystery – partially due to the fact that it is such a widely distributed species and therefore countless cultures and languages have to be taken into account in terms of this name. . . This only lends itself further to the importance of the scientific name.