Spectacular vernacular…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis smart little bee is called Nomada lathburiana, and I recorded it during last weekend’s Sutton Park BioBlitz.  Usually, when doing a walk for the public, I tend to use common names when I’m showing them a species for the first time.  Unfortunately, in the case of N. lathburiana there is no common name.  You could be forgiven for calling it the ‘ginger nomad bee’ as its thorax is covered with dense, gingery hairs.  And you might just do that. Give it a common name, use it enough, and others will pick up the expression.  This is how common names for species develop.  So why do we need the lengthy, hard-to-spell scientific names and what are they anyway?

Contrary to popular belief, you’d be incorrect to call them ‘Latin’ names, as they often involve Greek or any number of other languages, including derivations of the names of their discoverers.  This can be done at genus or species level, one of the coolest examples being the genus of Australian dinosaurs called ‘Leaellynasaura’ – named by palaeontologist Tom Rich, after his daughter Leallyn. See?  No Latin whatsoever!)

The system of giving organisms names (Homo sapiens for example) is called Binomial Nomenclature and was brought into common use by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist who, as well as being considered to be the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, identified and classified over 10,000 species of plants and animals.  (In fact, if you ever see a species name written with an ‘L.’ at the end, as in the common Daisy: “Bellis perennis L.” – it stands for ‘Linnaeus’.)  The first word in the binomial tells you the genus (or group of organisms) and is always capitalised.  The second tells you the species, and is never capitalised.


There are a number of weird and convoluted rules about what constitutes a ‘species’ – and in general a species is a group of organisms that can only produce fertile offspring with another individual of its species.  For example, a horse crossed with a donkey makes a mule, but mules are infertile, thus horses and donkeys are distinct species.  A lion and a tiger crossed will make a liger (I’m not making this up – google it!), but ligers are also infertile.  You get the idea.  Of course, there are exceptions to the rule – in the genus Canis – dogs.  Most members of Canis can cross-breed and produce fertile offspring.  And these things change all the time with every increase in scientific knowledge.  Canis rufus was the OLD name for the Red Wolf, which was believed to be the offspring of Grey Wolves Canis lupus and Coyotes Canis latrans cross-breeding, but is now classified as Canis lupus rufus, a subspecies of Grey wolves.  And so if you come across a name with three parts, it is probably a sub-species (like modern humans – we are Homo sapiens sapiens!)

Anyway so thats what the scientific name means, but why bother, right?  What is it for?  Well, imagine if you wanted to travel to the USA to study Buzzards.  You might go to places where buzzards had been seen and hope to observe some behaviour, etc.  But you’d be disappointed, because in the US, ‘Buzzard’ refers to what we would call vultures, and what we call ‘Buzzards’, they call Hawks.  BUT – if you went to the USA and looked up places to observe the birds of the genus ‘Buteo’ – (our common buzzard is Buteo buteo) – you would indeed find the relatives of our beloved common buzzard.

Naturalists the world over would be forever getting their wires crossed without the use of scientific names.  I’ll give you an example that happened to me:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast year I visited my wonderful friends at the Florida Bat Conservancy, and got to meet some of the bats that they had in care.  Cyndi, the group coordinator, asked me if I’d like to see their pipistrelles.  Of course I said yes, and while I was looking at one of her Eastern Pipistrelle bats, I said to her “you know, Cyndi this doesn’t look like our Pipistrelle bats at all – more like a Myotis bat!”  She replied that funnily enough, their ‘pips’ had just been reclassified into a new genus: Perimyotis!”

So, basically, scientific names keep us on the right track.  They give us an idea of how they relate to other species, maybe who discovered them, and they even sometimes give us clues about their lifestyle (Passer domesticus is the House Sparrow), physiology  (e.g. Apodemus flavicollis – flavi means yellow; collis means collar – is the Yellow-Necked Mouse) or origin (Branta canadensis – Canada Goose!). 

So the next time someone tells you that the beetle you’ve found is called Abax parallelepipedus, they’re probably not trying to blind you with science.  It might seem convoluted, but the world of natural history works brilliantly with all the complicated names!

2 Replies to “Spectacular vernacular…”

  1. Nomada lathburiana is interesting – it has the hairy torso of a bee, but then looks more like a wasp with its narrow waist and less hairy abdomen. Could it have been a crossover species between wasps and bees at some point in evolution?

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