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)".