Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Naming names OR how to get more fun from downloading checklists

Have you ever wondered how some plants and animals get their names? Obviously they are given names so that we can tell them apart and communicate with other people.  This sounds simple enough – a green-headed sunbird differs from a blue-throated sunbird and a scarlet-chested sunbird. But what about an African spirit, a friendly sapphire, blue policeman, western fairy playboy or gaudy commodore?   You could never tell from the names that these are butterflies.  In fact if you look through the Forest Project checklists of birds and butterflies (see Downloads), you have to conclude that ornithologists are practical and to-the-point with their names, while lepidopterists are imaginative to say the least.  Perhaps this is because we don’t catch and eat butterflies.  After all, the right whale got its name because it was the right one to go after for its meat and oil.  You can’t have a much more direct name than that.
blue policeman (Coeliades chalybe)
Plants come somewhere in between.  The sandpaper tree has leaves that feel like sandpaper and can be used for polishing, a dose of the worm bush gets rid of  worms, pigweed is good for feeding pigs and bitter leaf is exactly that.  These are useful names for describing practical purposes but then some plants have names like “morning glory’, “woman’s tongue” and “passionflower”.  Names like these tell you more about the observer than the plant.  They reflect our feelings and interests.
In fact we often use our names for the wildlife around us to describe ourselves or others – ‘eagle-eyed’ or having a ‘bee in your bonnet’.  If you take the time and trouble to find out, you will discover that common names in any language can say a lot about people and culture. The Igbo name for Pararistolochia goldieana, the largest flower in Africa, is ekommili, describing the unopened flower which is similar in shape to the local blacksmith’s bellows (eko) but very fragile (mmili).  

Pararistolochia goldieana, buds and open flowers
Which brings us to scientific names.  Every organism on earth which has been classified by a scientist has a two-part scientific name.  They are based on Latin or Greek words, or on Latinised versions, and provide a common scientific language worldwide.  The scientist who first identifies and describes the organism gets to name it, following internationally accepted rules.  This may sound dull but some scientific names are every bit as interesting as common names.  If you learnt Latin at school, you would know that Pararistolochia means distinct from but similar to (para-) Aristolochia (another group of related plants).  The second part, goldieana, describes this plant specifically, in this case that it was brought to the attention of scientists by the Reverend Hugh Goldie, a missionary who lived in Calabar in the 1880s. 
Next time you find out the name of a bird or butterfly or plant, check what the name means or how it got its name.  You may find out something very interesting and it may also help you to remember the name.

Deni Bown 21 March 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment