Why we use Latin names

While filling a display case with native birds of the Whanganui area, we were writing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. Which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. My suggestion: add Latin names to the labels, to make things clearer.

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (oura).

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (oura).

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow.

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow.

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right.

The tūī, once referred to as the Parson-bird for its clerical collar, has its white feathers captured in its Latin name, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae: a prosthema is an appendage on the dera or neck.

The tūī, once referred to as the Parson-bird for its clerical collar, has its white feathers captured in its Latin name, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae: a prosthema is an appendage on the dera or neck.

A recent book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr sounds like the most boring title in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey.

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name. New Zealand Robins aren’t robins either, but they’re close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica.

The North Island Robin or toutouwai (Petroica longipes) is named for it habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

The North Island Robin or toutouwai (Petroica longipes) is named for it habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. And because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. This affects the Museum too; our moa bone collections were classified in 1988, but since then two of the three species have been given different names. Changing an electronic database is easy, but I’m hoping we don’t have to redo the labels in the bird case any time soon.

Chrysococcyx means golden cuckoo, and lucida, or shining, describes the iridescent greeny-gold plumage of the Shining Cuckoo or pīpīwharauroa.

Chrysococcyx means golden cuckoo, and lucida, or shining, describes the iridescent greeny-gold plumage of the Shining Cuckoo or pīpīwharauroa.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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