A pair of northern shoveler ducks swim 2006. The northern shoveler has a scientific name of Spatula clypeata, which seems perfect for a duck with a spectacularly large bill. Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As a word lover, I am fascinated by the scientific names of organisms, especially birds. The Swedish naturalist, Karl Linnaeus, began the tradition of giving each species a binomial name, a genus and a species. Generally, these names are based on Greek or Latin roots.

A taxonomist who finds an undescribed species prepares a description of the species, explaining how it differs from others. The taxonomist has the pleasure of assigning the species name and, if the species is sufficiently distinctive, the genus name. The only rule in choosing a scientific name is that a taxonomist cannot name a new species after herself.

Sometimes the name may be frivolous. I know of a marine worm from Florida that was described by a visiting Brazilian taxonomist as Zygonemertes cocacola after the soft drink she enjoyed during her visit.

Sometimes, a genus or species name is a patronym, named after another scientist or friend. So, the scientific name of Wilson’s plover is Charadrius wilsonia, honoring the early American ornithologist Alexander Wilson, and Sabine’s gull is Xema sabini, honoring the British ornithologist, Joseph Sabine.

However, I appreciate genus and species names that are based on some aspect of a bird’s behavior or appearance. Consider the northern shoveler, a duck with a spectacularly large bill. Its scientific name is Spatula clypeata. The genus name comes from the Greek for spoon and the species name is Latin for shield-bearing. Together, those terms encapsulate the oversized bill of this bird.

How about the blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata? The genus name means dark blue in Greek and the species name means crested in Latin. That’s perfect: a dark-blue crested bird.

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My enthusiasm for puzzling out the meanings of genera and species led me to take a year of Latin as an undergraduate. But there are easier ways to decipher scientific names.  James Jobling wrote a book called the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. You can download this informative book for free from the Internet Archive  (search “helm dictionary” at archive.org).

One of my favorite genus names in the bird world is Troglodytes, a genus that includes the house wren and the winter wren. The genus name comes from the Greek for cave-dweller. Most wrens either nest in cavities or create domed nests with a roof and a lateral entrance. A domed nest would seem to have many advantages. They are warmer, offer protection from the sun and rain, and provide better protection from predators.

Generally, species with domed nests have higher clutch sizes than related species with open nests. For instance, the prothonotary warbler, one of the few cavity-nesting warblers, lays one or two more eggs on average than other warblers with their open nests. The risk of losing a clutch to the elements or predators is less in a domed nest, leading to an advantage of increasing the clutch size.

However, open nests are far more prevalent in songbirds. How can we explain this pattern?

To explore this problem, an international team of ornithologists, led by Dr. Iliana Medina, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, collected data on the nest design, building time and the geographic range of 3,175 species of songbirds.

The authors correlated their various measurements to search for suggestive relationships. Species with open nests generally had larger ranges and lower extinction rates. A lower extinction rate is not surprising since species with larger ranges tend to have higher population sizes and spread the extinction risk over a broader area.

Birds with open nests were also more likely to live in urban areas. Since most birds with domed nests build their nests on or near the ground, few opportunities for safe nesting exist in an urban environment. The authors found that domed nests take longer to build and hence are more costly. As far as defense is concerned, domed nests do provide a barrier to predators, but escape from an open nest can be quicker.

This study nicely demonstrates the power of comparative biology.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]


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