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What’s in a name?

October 16, 2015
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Readers of this blog will have noted that every animal is described by its common name (in Bold text) followed by its scientific or binomial name (in italics and brackets).

I'm nothing to crow about

I’m nothing to crow about

The common name is what most people use to describe an animal, such as magpie or water-rat. The trouble with using the common name is that in different locations that name could mean different things. For example the Australian Magpie was called that because it looked like a bird in England called the Magpie. The European Magpie however is of the crow family – an entirely different beastie. Stranger still, the same animal could have different names depending on location, for example, the Magpie Lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) in Victoria (pictured below) is called a Mudlark in WA and a Pee-Wee in NSW.

Magpie Lark (Grallina cyanoleuca)1 (2)

Identity crisis? Which state am I in.

Every plant, animal, fungus, etc. on earth has one and only one binomial name – making identification of everything very exact. The binomial name has a two-word format – Genus species, where the Genus is a noun and starts with a capital letter and the species is an adjective and has no capital. Both words have to be either Latin or the latinised form of another language, usually Ancient Greek.

The Australian Magpie has the binomial name Cracticus tibicen. Cracticus is from the Greek word kraktikos meaning a flute-player and tibicen is from the Greek word meaning noisy – a very apt description of this bird’s loud and melodious call.

snapshot4-001Water-rat is a common name used to describe a whole lot of rodents around the world. The binomial name for the Australian Water-rat or Rakali is Hydromys chrysogaster. It is derived from four Greek words – hudro meaning water, mys meaning mouse, khr so meaning gold (as in colour) and gaster meaning belly – the literal translation is Golden-bellied water-mouse.

So remember when you are travelling around the world (or even interstate) the common name could mean different things. To be specific you’ll need to use the binomial name. It also helps if you speak a Mediterranean language at home.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2015 9:23 pm

    interesting information I need to learn lots more about Australian birds.

    • ronlit permalink
      October 21, 2015 6:24 am

      A great book for all Aussie birds names both common and binomial is a CSIRO publication-
      Australian Bird Names – A Complete Guide
      Ian Fraser & Jeannie Gray

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