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.

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".