As a life-long admirer of nature and words with love in equal measure for each, there is nothing that so perfectly blends my passions as the meaning of scientific names.
The “father of modern taxonomy,” Carl Linnaeus (a.k.a Carolus – giving yourself a Latinized name was all the rage among academics of the time), wasn’t the first to attempt to standardize the names of plants & animals, but he did simplify the process with binomial nomenclature.
His process continues to be used today, though it has been refined and organizations have arisen to govern the creation of scientific names.
Scientific names may sound strange since they’re often in Latin or Greek, but if you check out the etymology of the terms, scientific names are often even more descriptive than the common names that we give flora and fauna. And that makes sense: one goal of scientific nomenclature is to describe the specific, unique creature concisely.
That hasn’t stifled the creativity of scientists – there are some hilarious, creative, and punny scientific names out there. But scientific names don’t have to be crazy to be fun. Here are some of my favorite creatures whose names highlight the descriptive power of scientific names.
Share your favorite scientific names in the comments!
Most scientific names are descriptive and this one fits the black-footed ferret, translating almost exactly to the common name black-footed ferret.
Mustela is Latin for weasel (hence also the family name of weasel-like mammals is Mustelidae). The species name, nigripes, comes from Latin niger for black and pes for foot. There is a proud tradition (hailing back at least to Ancient Greek) of naming things by their feet that gives us many scientific and common names from octopus (eight-footed) to platypus (flat or wide-footed).
Black-footed ferrets are the most endangered mammal in the US, so scarce that they were once thought to be extinct. There is hope they will make a comeback with a successful reintroduction program underway.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Scientific names don’t have to be skin deep. This scientific name is as much about the sound of and human responses to the western diamondback rattlesnake as its appearance.
The genus Crotalus derives from Greek κρόταλον, a rattle or other noisemaker, and the species atrox is Latin for fierce or frightening (though little threat to careful humans, rattlesnakes of all sorts have been looked upon with fear since they got their names).
You may have noticed, not all scientific names stick to just one language – many mix Greek & Latin and some more recent names draw on the language of the region where the creature is found.
I’ve been fond of the scientific name for the bald eagle ever since I was teaching Greek. Not only does it employ four key Greek words, I think it does a better job than “bald eagle” of describing the bird.
The genus is a rough transliteration from Greek ἁλιαίετος meaning sea-eagle, which further breaks down into ἅλς (hals) for salt – often metaphorically used of the sea – and ἀετός for eagle. The species is a compound of λευκός, bright or white, and κεφαλή, head. Put it together and you have white-headed sea-eagle, more accurate than “bald.”
Scientific names that are more creative, or an homage to a celebrity, didn’t start with the Beyoncé horse fly. They go back to Linnaeus himself and the Danaus genus of butterflies.
When I first saw Danaus as the genus name, I wondered what connection these butterflies had to the mythical king Δαναός (Danaus), best known from Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women. In the full myth of Danaus, 50 daughters are forced to marry their 50 cousins, but at the command of Danaus murder the men in their sleep. All except for one, Hypermestra, who spares her husband Lynceus.
Though it was equally mysterious in reference to the monarch butterfly, I didn’t immediately realize that πλήξιππος (plexippus), Greek for horse-driver, was also a name. Plexippus, was one of the 50 sons of Aegyptus who was killed on that fatal night.
Thanks to a reference in Wikipedia, I was able to track down the page where Linnaeus notes that he has borrowed all of the names of the Danai candidi (Danaus butterflies with whitish wings) from the daughters of Danaus and the Danai festivi (Danaus butterflies with more colorful, varied wings) from the sons of Aegyptus.
Unfortunately for us, Linnaeus didn’t explain why he chose these names – my best guess is that the numbers worked out well and the butterflies looked royal, as in our common name “monarch.” While the reason behind the name remains a mystery, science has made great strides in understanding the causes of the recent decline in monarch populations and there are some simple ways that you can help them bounce back.
This is my personal favorite, not only because red pandas are, yes, incredibly cute. It is also a great name in its own right.
The genus Ailurus comes from Greek αἴλουρος for domestic cat. Red pandas are roughly the size of a cat and I can see the similarity that led to this name, though the genetic relationship between cats and pandas is distant. The resemblance to a cat is close enough that it’s picked up in another of the red panda’s common names – the red bear-cat.
Switching to Latin for the species name, fulgens means flashing or gleaming and not just any flash – in Latin literature fulgens and related words are frequently used to describe fire and lighting. The kind of shining that inspires awe and maybe a little fear, a beautiful description of the red panda’s brilliant fur. This also is reminiscent of a modern nickname for the red panda – the firefox.