The universal language of science is Latin. When scientists describe a species of living thing or even a species of mineral, they give it a name in Latin, Latinized Greek or what is called New Latin, a form of Latin refined during the Renaissance.
When a new species is found, a series of specimens is collected. “Type specimens” are designated by the scholar who will name the species and describe its attributes from the type specimens. The new species will be described in a scholarly journal article; a species that has been introduced in a journal article is said to have been “published” and the scholar who described it is its author.
Often, the scientific name proposed in the description will honor a person – the collector of the original specimens, for instance, or a person who has contributed to science. The Butler’s garter snake of Michigan, which has the scientific name Thamnophis butleri, (tham-no-fiss but-ler-eye) honors Amos Butler, an early naturalist of the region.
Scientific names are often passed over when people read about nature. Latin names can seem like hopeless mouthfuls to those unfamiliar with them, but anyone who can rattle off their telephone number can pronounce a Latin name.
Some Latin names are almost musical, like Plusiotis gloriosa (ploo-see-oh-tiss glo-ree-oh-sah), while others like Lepidopheima flavimaculata (leh-pid-oh-fy-ma flav-ih-mack-you-la-ta)are verbal brick walls, but a bit of practice will demystify pronunciation and have you rattling off Paraheterosternous ludecki (pa-ra-het-er-oh-ster-nus loo-deck-eye) like an old hand.
These names mean something when translated. The Latin name of one of America’s largest native snakes, the Eastern indigo snake of Georgia and Florida is Drymarchon couperi (dry-mar-kon coo-per-eye). The first part of the name, Drymarchon, is from Latin for oak tree (Drymos), merged with Latin for “ruler” or “king” (archos). Thus, the name translates to “forest ruler” or “forest lord”. The second part of the name, couperi, honors the snake’s discoverer, James Hamilton Couper, a prominent Southern citizen.
Modern Latin names always come in at least two words. The first word, which is the Genus, is always capitalized. The second word, which is the species, is never capitalized because the two words together form a phrase in Latin, like a sentence in English. Only the first word is capitalized in the phrase. Publication standards call for Latin names to be in italics when they appear in print.
Some Latin names have been applied as a result of mistakes. The Largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides (my-krop-ter-us sal-moy-dees) translates to “salmon-like with a small wing”. The “small wing” part refers to a tiny third fin on the back of the fish chosen as the type specimen. Unfortunately, that specimen had a torn second fin, giving the author the mistaken impression it had three fins on its back, the last of which was remarkably small, hence the choice of “small wing” (or small fin, since “ptera” can be either wing or fin) in the Latin name. Once a description is published, changing the name to correct inaccuracies in the original description becomes meaningless, since the Latin name is more about identifying one and only one species and less about accurately describing it.
The Latin name of our largest Michigan dragonfly, the Green Darner, is Anax junius (ay-nax joon-ee-us), or “lord and master of June”. The author was impressed by the way the Green Darner dominates the insects that fly above ponds and lakes and chose a name that reflected his emotions rather than describing the attributes of the species in question.
For all that Latin names may seem like a pointless journey into cobwebby academic hocus-pocus, they do eliminate confusion over the identity of any species across all cultural boundaries. They can also be a window into some fascinating back stories, little clues to our history and to those who shaped the nation that shapes us. More to come.