Dual-use scientific names

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-07-13

A long time ago, I was delighted to notice—by accident—that the Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon Treron phoenicopterus has, as its specific name, the same name given to the genus of Flamingos. And what a name it is! Phoenicopterus, meaning "crimson-wing", from the Greek φοίνικ- (phoenic-, for "blood red", the root of Phoenix and Phoenician; itself derived from φόνος, fonos, for "slaughter") and pteron (for wing).

This weekend, armed with a not-terribly-recent checklist of birds and a little spare time, I wrote a small Perl script to look for other names given to both a genus and a different species (that is to say, I ignored the relatively better-known examples of one bird having the same generic and specific name, such as Coccothraustes coccothraustes and Pica pica). Here are some of the most interesting results.

The Farsi word Satrap (derived from an Old Persian word meaning "protector of the province", and related to Kshatriya in Sanskrit) features in the astonishingly similar names of the Yellow-Browed Tyrant Satrapa icterophrys and Golden-Crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa. The genus Regulus includes the Goldcrest Regulus regulus, Flamecrest R. goodfellowi, and Firecrest R. ignicapilla; besides which, the specific name regulus is shared by a Honeyguide and a Manakin. The genus Satrapa is monotypic, as befits a Tyrant.

The well-known African Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus shares a name with the equally famous European Robin Erithacus rubecula. But the two other members of the genus Erithacus suffer from even more interesting nomenclature. The Japanese Robin Erithacus akahige has as its specific name the common name, in Japanese, of the Ryukyu Robin Erithacus komadori! And of course the word "Akahige", which means "Red Beard", is familiar to anyone who has watched Kurosawa's unforgettable film.

No fewer than ten unrelated black-eared species including the Swee Waxbill Estrilda melanotis share the name melanotis with a genus of Mockingbirds that does not include the familiar Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos; but the gap is spanned by the San Cristobal Mockingbird Mimus melanotis!

Other interesting shared names include:

But the most magnificent example of this phenomenon is the pair of names given in 1758 by Linnaeus himself to the Short-Eared Owl and the Eastern Screech-Owl: Asio otus and Otus asio respectively. (Alas, the latter species has been reassigned to the genus Megascops.)

An entirely different kind of "dual use" name: Boa constrictor is the scientific name of the Boa constrictor.