Bird names (and other names too!)

K.J.Caley Kevin.Caley at
Wed Jun 9 15:53:34 EDT 1999

Doug Yanega wrote:

> Michael Gochfeld wrote:
> >There is NO reason that names have to reflect every
> >taxonomic change----there are numbers and diagrams which can do that
> >much better than names.
> If two species are not part of the same evolutionary group, they shouldn't
> have the same genus name. Conversely, a genus SHOULD include all
> descendants of a common ancestor. Most of the taxonomic reshuffling of
> genera you see reflects changes of one of these two types, and both are
> VERY good reasons to rename things.

I agree with this - the scientific name is there to give an indication of
phylogeny, i.e. x is related to y, without requiring the user to have an
in-depth knowledge of systematics or cladistics, as well as informing the user
as to the identity of the animal concerned, no matter what language he or she
speaks - we don't all speak English, after all, and besides, many species don't
have a vernacular name anyway.  Thus we can tell that Euploea core is related
to E. mulciber, but from the vernaculars we would think they were birds (i.e.
crows) and not know their true idenitity without seeing them (Danaine
butterflies). If someone then comes along and tells us that the two aren't
related, this will be indicated in the generic change, as Doug indicates, but
we'd still know to which family they belong.

The confusion is caused by the field guides either not being able to keep up
(which is understandable sometimes) or the publishers not checking their facts
before they go to print (among the birds, the Great White Egret, an oft-quoted
controversy perpetuated by publishers - Casmerodius as part of Egretta when it
is actually more closely related to Ardea and should warrant its own generic
standing).  There is also the acceptance factor, which takes a while to move
through all levels of the scientific and natural history community.

> Numbers and diagrams are not a solution
> - I think people would have a lot harder time trying to recall "species
> 4508287" than "Parus atricapillatus".

In addition, if a new species is discovered, which is more regularly in some
groups than others, or a former subspecies is discovered not to be so closely
related to species x as was formerly thought, the use of numbering is
prohibitive - you can't just slot in a new number without altering all the
numbers of everything that follows it (if you want it to actually be a
worthwhile system), while giving it a number (at the end of a catalogue list)
is just a nonsense and doesn't add anything to our understanding (PS isn't it
'P. atricapillus', Doug?). This is why the system was invented in the first
place (and championed by Linnaeus).


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