Zoologists have often given our fauna scientific names which are interesting, strange, amusing or even downright rude.

This blog will , over time, systematically dissect the literal meanings behind some of our British animals' scientific names.
I'll start with birds and move onto insects and other animals.

This blog began life on November 16th 2012. I will add to it regularly.

Saturday 8 December 2012

White-tailed sea eagle

White-tailed sea eagle
Haliaeetus albicilla
[Linnaeus, 1758

The white-tailed sea eagle has one of the most  apt (if uninspiring) scientific name and that's the only reason why I've included it in this list.

Haliaeetus comes from the Greek, halos: "the sea" and aetos: "eagle".
albicilla stems from Latin, albus: "white" and (modern) Latin, cilla: "tail".

So, the white-taile sea eagle has a scientific name which means:
"Sea eagle with a white tail"

Friday 7 December 2012


Bucephala clangula
[Linnaeus, 1758]

Probably my favourite duck of all (it battles with the wigeon for that title), the goldeneye is a stunning tree-nesting diving duck which breeds in the far north but is now being persuaded to breed in Scotland (and spread south from there) in nest-boxes.

Goldeneye are relatively often encountered on lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits in England during the winter - and this species of duck was the reason why I bought my inflatable boat "Mandarin". I wanted to take photos of these ducks starting to display in February on English gravel pits - but needed to get closer to the fowl - which meant I needed a boat.

Male goldeneye have a fascinating breeding display which you can see here. The drakes throw their bull-heads right back, cry and kicks up some water - its really fun to watch.

Right then.... what about their name?

Well... "goldeneye" itself is pretty apt for obvious reasons but its scientific name is less obvious.

Bucephala literally means "bull-headed" from the Greek bous:"bull" and kephalos:"head" (think kephalonia)
clangula literally means "to resound" from the Latin clangere. (think the CLANG! of  a bell).

I can almost begin to appreciate the bull-headed bit - the drakes at least are thick headed and thick necked (and seemingly quite driven when breeding time arrives), but what about the "resounding" bit?

The drakes are very noisy at breeding time - emitting a double quack which can be heard over a kilometer away allegedly - this has given the species its specific name.
Click here to listen to a range of these calls...

The goldeneye also whistles loudly whilst in flight (in North America they're sometimes known as "Whistler ducks") - so quite a noisy duck really I guess.
(I still think the wigeon is far noisier though and the specific name for goldeneye is a little strange).

To summarise, the goldeneye has a scientific name which literally means:
"The bull-head which resounds"

Thursday 6 December 2012

King eider

King eider
Somateria spectabilis
[Linnaeus, 1758]

I've included the king eider in this blog, just so that we can dissect the word "spectabilis", as it crops up many times in zoological scientific names.

The king eider does not get its English name from someone being angry with a normal Eider ('king eider....) but from the fact that it looks like a very royal eider indeed....

If you'll permit me to refer to you to the (bog standard) Eider scientific name explanation on this blog, you see where Somateria stems from ("wool body" in Greek).
spectabilis however, means "spectacular" or "remarkable" in Latin - very apt I think when one compares a King Eider (drake) to its less remarkable cousin...

So... the King Eider's scientific name literally means:

"Spectacular or remarkable soft woolly body"

Wednesday 5 December 2012


Somateria mollissima
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The eider (duck) is a large, impressive duck, found in numbers around our northern coasts (my father in Fife sees many) and is fabled for its soft feathers which were stuffed into bedding for the luxury "eiderdown" feel...

Every spring the female duck makes a nest, sheds 17 gram of grey, very light down into it and lays 4-5 big eggs.
After its ducklings have hatched, all eiders return back to the ocean.
The down left behind, comes only from female, fully grown, live birds. This makes it always mature and uniform.

Currently, the majority of eiderdown on the world market comes from Iceland where harvesting it is a thousand year old tradition. Only 2.5 t are properly gathered every spring and cleaned by specialized, secret technology which leaves Icelandic eiderdown without contest in quality.

The Eider duck was clearly well known for its soft down feathers and its Greek and Latin name is testament to that....

Somaterion is derived from soma and erion ("body" and "wool" in Greek)
mollissima means "very soft" in Latin (from mollis :soft).
There we have it then.
The Eider is scientifically known as:
"very soft woolly-bodied"

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Common scoter

Common scoter
Melanitta nigra
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The common scoter is a large sea duck that is black.... very black indeed and is almost completely confined to being a winter visitor (only) to the UK.

Its scientific name is pretty apt, if a little heavy-on-the-mustard.

Melanitta literally means "black duck" from the Greek melas meaning "dark" or "black" (think melanistic & melanin) and netta meaning "duck".
nigra comes from the Latin niger meaning "shining black".


The common scoter has a scientific name which quite liddderallllly means the:

"Black duck that's (so black ... it's) shiny black"

Ok... we get it, we get it.

It's black.

It'll always be the ACDC of ducks to me....

Monday 3 December 2012


Aythya marila
[Linnaeus, 1761]

The scaup always makes me think of a tufted duck that has lost its tuft due to large waves on the sea. It is similar to a tufted duck after all, but does prefer the sea to inland bodies of water.

It also differs from the far more oft-encountered tufted duck in that the drake has a distinctively coloured back - a mottled grey affair - and this gives the scaup its very apt very descriptive, wholly Greek scientific name.

Think of a bonfire that has burned almost out - and picture the embers as they lose their glow...

Aythya (like the tufted duck) has a stem in aithuia - "a diving waterbird as described by Aristotle".
marila has its root in the Greek word marile meaning "charcoal embers".

So... the scaup, at least scientifically, is known as the very descriptive:

"charcoal-ember diving duck"

Sunday 2 December 2012

Tufted duck

Tufted duck.
Aythya fuligula  
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The tufted duck is a beautiful wee duck (at least the drake is), all decked out in jet black and snow white with bright yellow eyes.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to watch a tufted duck family raise a small brood of ducklings on the river Lea in Tottenham Hale when we lived there at the turn of the century and to see these tiny dark brown spikey (nidifugous) young dive for food at a day old was something I'll never forget.

We know the tufted duck as the tufted duck because of the drake's errr..... tuft.

But in times gone by, the duck was known at least scientifcally, as the ...
"sooty- throated diving duck"

(Aythya from aithuia: "a diving waterbird described by Aristotle" (Greek of course)
Fuligula from fuligo: "soot"  and gula: "throat"  (both Latin))

I guess the male tufted duck (drake!) does have a "sooty-looking throat" - and I guess its black throat is often more obvious than its tuft, so I can live with this scientific name....

Saturday 1 December 2012


Anas penelope
[Linnaeus, 1758]

Now, then. The wigeon. One of my two favourite ducks  - the other being the goldeneye.

Why do I like the wigeon so much? I'm not sure to be honest but they're very pretty ducks and very impressive. I love the sound of wigeon also - all that nasal whinnying and whistling - they're great fun to watch.

The wigeon has a scientific name rooted in classical mythology - something I certainly appreciate (always have) and a subject that I'll return to many times I expect (especially when I start to explain the scientific names of our lepidoptera).

We've seen before that Anas means duck in Latin, but what does Penelope mean or where does the name Penelope come from - does Anas Penelope mean "Penelope's duck" and who, if that is true, was "Penelope"?

Penelope in classical Greek mythology was the wife of the hero Odysseus. Penelope was celebrated for her faithfulness and patience.
For the 20 years that her husband was away during and after the Trojan War (think Homer's "Odyssey"), Penelope remained true to him and helped prevent his kingdom from falling into other hands.
Penelope's parents were Prince Icarius of Sparta and the nymph Periboea.
Periboea hid her infant daughter (Penelope) as soon as she was born, knowing that Icarius had wanted a son.
As soon as Icarius discovered the baby girl, he threw her into the sea to drown.
However, a family of ducks rescued her.
Seeing this as an omen, Icarius named the child Penelope (after the Greek word for penelops meaning "duck") and raised her as his favourite child.

I'm sure the wigeon was arbitrarily given the title of the duck that saved Penelope from drowning (it could have been any species after all), but that matters not I guess.

So.... the specific name for the wigeon literally means "the saviour of Penelope" and originates in penelops, as described above.

Maybe that's why the wigeon is one of my (if not my) favourite ducks - with a name rooted in classical Greek mythology and named after a character in one of my favourite stories of all time ("The Odyssey").

I've been lucky enough to visit the fabled home of Odysseus, twice (in fact that's where I proposed to my wife) and we hope to return one day. I may take my moth-eaten copy of "The Odyssey" to read once again, on the beautiful beaches of the green Greek island of Kephalonia...

Anyway.... I'm rambling.

The scientific name for the wigeon, a mixture of Latin and Greek, literally means:

"Duck  - duck (that saved Penelope in classical Greek myth)".


Friday 30 November 2012


Anas clypeata
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The shoveler is, depending on what your take on it is, either a strangely named duck (scientifically-speaking) or quite aptly named.

Anas means duck in Latin and clypeata literally means "shield-bearing" (from the Latin clypeus, "shield").

Many people think of the shoveler's shield being the male's obvious white breast but I can't help thinking that the shield is more indicative of the broad shield-like bill of both sexes.

You'll call it as you see fit of course, but in any case, the Latin scientific name for shoveler literally means:
"shield-bearing duck".

Thursday 29 November 2012


Anas acuta
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The (northern) pintail is a very elegant waterfowl and once was probably the most numerous duck species in the world.
It has a very obvious set of elongated central tail feathers which not only give it its English-speakers' common name of pintail but also its scientific name.

Anas means "duck" in Latin.
acutus literally means "sharp or pointed" in Latin (think of an acute angle or acute appendicitis...)

So, the (northern) pintail's scientific name literally means  "sharp (or pointed) duck".

Wednesday 28 November 2012


Anas strepera
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The gadwall is a strangely-named duck in my opinion. Firstly, no-one seems to know where the word "gadwall" actually comes from and secondly it has a pretty poor scientific name.

Anas means "duck" in Latin (which is fair enough I suppose) but streperus means "noisy" in Latin - and this is where I must have missed something when watching these very subtly-beautiful waterfowl.

I would hardly describe the gadwall as a "noisy duck" but that's the literal meaning of its scientific name. Gadwalls are particularly quiet until they start to breed and then, whereas the much noisier (most of the time) mallard goes all quiet (and starts ducking and bobbing) when breeding, the gadwall at least has a mating call (a "nheck" and "whistle")

So yes, I guess the male gadwall does (somewhat) noisily announce his readiness for mating but other than that, I'd not say they're a noisy waterfowl at all...

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Brent goose

Brent goose 
Branta bernicla 
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The brent goose is another member of the Anatidae family (swans, ducks and geese) and like the alien Canada goose, a "black goose" like the barnacle goose also - one of the Branta genus of geese as opposed to the grey Anser genus.

I've included the brent goose in my list of zoological nomenclature explanations here as its scientific name might confuse the unsuspecting...

Whilst dissecting the generic name of the Canada goose here, I've explained the stem of Branta (old Norse brand meaning singed black) but what can bernicla mean then?

Rather like the geese we call barnacle geese (similar-looking but unrelated geese, see below) medieval folklore would have it that the brent goose appeared from nowhere in the late autumn - born as goose barnacles (the barnacle was actually named after the goose, not the other way around).
This is because no-one tended to see barnacle or brent geese breeding or young - this all happened in the arctic.
It seems strange to us now that this was believed, but if you look at a goose barnacle, with its feathery feeding appendage extended, you could almost see what those medieval folk meant and understand why they thought goose barnacles were the young geese.

So bernicla literally means "barnacle" in Latin and the scientific name for the brent goose (NOT the barnacle goose), literally means:
the "singed goose that comes from a barnacle".

But what about the bird that we refer to as a "barnacle goose" - it can't have the same scientific name as the brent goose can it?
No... it doesn't. What we call the barnacle goose is referred to scientifically as Branta leucopsis - which literally means the "singed goose with a light white face". Far more sensible than the "singed goose that comes from a barnacle" don't you agree...?

Monday 26 November 2012

Canada goose

Canada goose
Branta canadensis
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The Canada goose, even though being an alien invader to the UK (first introduced to St.James' Park as a North American addition to Charles II's waterfowl collection in 1665) at least gives me an opportunity to briefly start to discuss the "black geese" scientific names.

The so-called "black geese" all have solid areas of very (very) dark grey or black in their colouration - mainly their bill and feet/legs (but also often in their plumage) and all the "black geese" belong to the Branta genus of geese, as opposed to the Anser genus (grey geese), which have orange or pink feet and bills.

Branta geese as far as us Brits are concerned consist of the Canada goose, the barnacle goose and the brent goose.

Branta (and indeed "brent") has a stem in old Norse - brandgas meaning "burned goose" (singed black goose)
Canadensis is new Latin for "from Canada".

Therefore, the Canada goose has a scientific name composed from old Norse and Latin stems which literally means:
"singed (or burned or branded) goose from Canada".

Sunday 25 November 2012

Pink-footed goose

Pink-footed goose.
Anser brachyrhynchus 
[Baillon, 1834]

The pink-footed goose like any duck, goose or swan belongs to the Anatidae family. The "pink-foot" is a grey goose much like our other grey geese (white-fronted, greylag, bean).

These days, we differentiate between the "pink-footed goose" and its similar grey cousins by noting that the "pink-footed goose" has errr..... pink feet and legs, rather than the orange colour of other grey geese species.

When the pink-footed goose was classified though and given a scientific name, it wasn't the colour of its feet and legs that Baillon noted as different about this species. No... it was the fact that compared to greylag, bean geese and white-fronted geese, the pink-footed goose had a short, stubby bill. Very sensible I think, considering the fact that generally, when one is observing geese, their feet are invariably hidden under water or behind grass - making a determination of their colour often a little difficult.

Anser means "goose" in Latin.
Brakhus means "stubby" or "short" in Greek and Rhunkhos means "bill" (or "nose") also in Greek.

So what we know as the "pink-footed goose" is actually (and sensibly) known scientifically as the:
 "stubby-billed goose".

Saturday 24 November 2012


Botaurus stellaris 
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The bittern is a strange heron (Ardeidae family) indeed - and well known to early classical naturalists - the bird is even mentioned in the bible.

A bull-necked, thick-set, spangly-plumaged, partially nocturnal heron which hides deep in swamps and reedbeds during the day, the male bellows (or "booms") when advertising for a mate or proclaiming its territory. (See Pliny's description of this "booming" below)

I've almost explained the scientific name for the bittern without even breaking a sweat it seems...

The modern English word "bittern" stems from the old French "butor" which originally comes from the Gallo-Romance buitaurus ("ox-bull"), possibly on account of the fact that Pliny described it as "a bird which bellowed as a bull" - although this does seem a bit strange to me.

Botaurus is a Latin corruption of buitaurus and means (as described above) ox-bull.
Stellaris, Latin again, means "starry" - allthough whether this describes the bittern's spangled plumage or nocturnal habits might be up for debate (probably the former if I had to guess).

There we have it then... the bittern's Latin (in this case) name, literally means:

"Starry ox-bull".

Friday 23 November 2012


Phalacrocorax carbo
[Linnaeus, 1758]

The cormorant (and shag) belong to the Phalacrocoracidae family of birds - a name which literally means "bald raven" (phalakros means bald and korax means Raven - both are Greek stems).

That would also explain the generic name for the cormorant then (Phalacrocorax) and as for the specific name - well... carbo means "charcoal" in Latin.

Does the cormorant look like a "charcoal-coloured bald raven" to you - because that is indeed the literal meaning of its scientific name...

No... I don't think its the best-named bird either.

Thursday 22 November 2012


Morus bassanus
[Linnaeus, 1758]

Northern gannets ("our" gannets) belong to the Sulidae family of seabirds - the boobies and gannets.
The gannet is another seabird which we Brits have taken to eating, rather like the shearwaters...

In fact, young gannets are still eaten as "guga" even today in the Western Isles.
The word "gannet" itself is derived from "ganot" (or "gan") - old English for goose and the traditional name for the Northern gannet is still Solan goose ("channel goose").
Gannets were (and indeed still are around Ness) caught very easily - fisherman regarded them as incredibly simple birds - moronic in fact - and this gives rise to their generic name of Morus.
Our (Northern) gannets have a specific name of bassanus - which is a nod to the Bass Rock - on which they've bred in huge numbers for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Two thirds of the world's entire population of gannets breed around our British shores - the Bass rock in the Firth of Forth being one of our most famous colonies.
So.... our Northern gannet has a scientific name which quite literally means:
"Moron of the Bass rock".

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Storm Petrel

Storm Petrel
Hydrobates pelagicus
[Linnaeus, 1758]

"Mother Carey's chicken"* or the "storm petrel"** belongs to the Hydrobatidae family of birds. For us Brits, this family is basically limited to the Leach's storm petrel and the storm petrel itself, although worldwide there are around sixteen members of the Hydrobatidae.

All these petrels live a pretty pelagic (upper layers of the open ocean) life - and seem to dance on the water surface, when the waves are flat and the sea is calm.
**This walking on the water or pattering of their feet on the waves in fact gave rise to their "petrel" name which is thought to stem from St.Peter (who Jesus asked to walk on the Sea of Galilee (if you believe all that stuff)). "Storm" petrel as sailors often saw the petrels in calm conditons, just before a storm (therefore they were storm harbingers).
* In fact, there is more religious jiggery-pokery going on in the traditional folk name for the storm petrel - Mother Carey is basically a corruption of Mater Cara, one of the epithets of the virgin Mary, used by Spanish and Portugese sailors (the first real western sailors in the southern seas).
Mother Carey can be thought of as a traditional female supernatural figure who personified the cruel and threatening sea in the minds-eye of 19th century English-speaking sailors.

Annyyyywaaaay..... where were we?

Ah yes, the Hydrobatidae.

Each of the sixteen Hydrobatidae family members has the generic (genus) name of: Oceanodroma -each apart from the storm petrel that is, which is the only member of the genus Hydrobates itself.

So what does Hydrobatidae and therefore Hydrobates mean then?

Hydro stems from hudro (Greek "water") and bates from baino (Greek "to step on").
As for pelagicus, well.... I've mentioned that already in this blog.

The (eventual) upshot of all this wittering is that the scientific name for the storm petrel literally means water-walker or:
 "treader on the open sea".

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Fulmar (petrel)

Fulmarus glacialis
[Linnaeus, 1761]

A nice, simple meaning today, grapple-fans.
Our fulmar (petrel) is another member of the Procellariidae family (for us Brits basically the shearwaters and fulmar).

It is famous (infamous really) for covering any person daft (or unfortunate) enough to wander closely to its nest site of choice, with a thick, gloopy, foul-smelling stomach oil.

This stinking liquid wax or stomach oil has the same chemical make-up as the sperm whale's oil (see link) and gave the fulmar a particularly errr.... ripe reputation - and this was not forgotten when it became time to give the bird a scientific name.

Fulmar is derived from old Norse - Ful meaning "foul" (smelling) and mar meaning "gull"
Glacialis on the other hand is more classical in origin - and is Latin for "icy" (we can assume this means a white bird of the north in this case).

SOoooo.... the fulmar (petrel) has a scientific name which literally means:
 "Icy, foul gull".

Monday 19 November 2012

Manx shearwater

Manx Shearwater 
Puffinus puffinus.
[BrĂ¼nnich, 1764]

The Manx shearwater belongs to the Procellariidae family - a family of tubenose seabirds which includes (as far as us Brits are concerned) the fulmar and the shearwaters.

The Manx shearwater is strange in that its scientific name of Puffinus puffinus records a name shift or a change in nomenclature if you will -  and also is an example of a scientific name not rooted in a classical language such as Latin or Greek.

Before the 18th century, Manx shearwaters were called "Manks puffins" - the word "puffin" being derived from "pophyn" a middle English word  which meant "Fatling" - a  cured baby shearwater carcass (eaten as food).

We can only guess that the bird we now call the "puffin" (in common parlance) took its name purely because it is a pelagic seabird like the original pophyns (shearwaters) and exhibits similar nesting habits - i.e. nests in subterranean burrows on the same cliff-tops often - and that's about that really - the fatlings (young of the shearwater) and puffins were simply confused.

We'll come onto the (Atlantic) puffin's (more amusing) scientific name in a later blog.
Anyway... the literal translation of the Manx shearwater's scientific name can be thought of as:
 "cured, plump, baby seabird carcass - cured, plump, baby seabird carcass".

Sunday 18 November 2012

Little grebe

Little Grebe.
Tachybaptus ruficollis  
[Pallas, 1764]

The little grebe (or “dabchick”*) is our smallest member of the Podicipedidae (the “anus feet”) but has the longest scientific name of all of our grebes at 8 syllables.

Tachybaptus  literally means "rapid-submerging"  (tachy from the Greek “takhos” for fast and baptus from the Greek “bapto” for submerge).
Ruficollis  literally means "red-necked" (rufus Latin for reddish & collus Latin for neck).

Luckily? for us, the (different) bird we actually call the “red-necked grebe” has a scientific name meaning the “grey-cheeked anus-foot” (no mention of a red neck), but that’s for another day.

All we need to remember is that our redneck… is the little grebe ...
and is scientifically named as the "rapidly-diving redneck".
We can just call it Cletus or Mary Lou I guess... 

*Incidentally…. “Dabchick” originates from obsolete English – dap or dop “to dive”…and chick for bird.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Great crested grebe

Zoological nomenclature's first post...

Great crested grebe.
Podiceps cristatus.
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Like many grebes, the great crested grebe is very adept in water but can hardly walk on land. It waddles with great difficulty & drags itself around on its belly if it needs to.

This is because for maximum efficiency and thrust in the water (better to catch fish), the grebes' legs and feet are positioned as far back on their bodies as can be (next to the grebe's jacksie) unlike more terrestrial birds which have their legs (and feet) further forward.

Podiceps literally means "anus-foot" and cristatus literally means "crested". (Both latin).
Please click here to see a lovely photo which shows this magnificently.
All grebes, be they great crested, black-necked or little belong to the family Podicipedidae - the "anus feet".

The great crested grebe is therefore named scientifically as the:
 "crested anus-foot".