Robins and Scientific Names
I saw my first robin of the spring recently. Seeing that first robin of the season always brings back memories. One such memory for me was from a spring day when I was in graduate school. As many of us entered the classroom, a zoology student sat down beside me and proclaimed: “I just saw my first migrating turd!”
I soon learned that the scientific name of the American robin is Turdus migratorius. So the robin has the dubious distinction of occasionally being called a “migrating turd.” Scatological humor aside, the scientific name of the robin is actually quite logical and meaningful. As with many words in the English language, the roots for scientific names are in Latin and Greek. Turdus is a Latin term for a thrush. A robin is a type of thrush, and as the other term implies, also migrates, thus Turdus migratorius.
Scientific names eliminate the confusion that you often get from common names such as “chicken hawk” or “slough grass.” I have been in more than one conversation where common names have caused considerable confusion. You do not get that with scientific names.
The two terms used in scientific names are the genus name and the specific epithet. A little knowledge of Latin and Greek words is where the terms really become meaningful.
Genus names are often descriptive or perhaps an old common name. The genus name for skunks is Mephitis which means “noxious vapor.” Examples of common names used in genus names include Ulmus (elm), Scirpus (bulrush), Branta (a brant, goose), and Betula (birch). Some genus names are even used today as common name, such as bison and geranium.
It is similar for the specific epithet, which often is an adjective, characteristic, or locality. It can also refer to habitat or to honor a person. Betula papyrifera is the scientific name for paper birch. The epithet is an obvious reference to the paper-like bark of the plant. A Latin reference to a river or stream is “fluviatilis,” so river bulrush is Scirpus fluviatilis.
If you haven’t already, hopefully you too will soon see your first Turdus migratorius of the year. It won’t be long before the Branta canadensis will be honking overhead, the Betula leafing out, and the Scirpus providing cover for fish and waterfowl.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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