About the names of living things


Rupricola peruvianus

Rupricola peruvianus, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, or, in Quechua, tunki.

I have heard it said that the oldest profession is prostitution, but this is not what the Holy Bible states. The first actual task, other than dressing and keeping the Garden of Eden, was that Adam had to give names to each of the Creations God made.

וַיִּצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה כָּל־חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְאֵת כָּל־עֹוף הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיָּבֵא אֶל־הָאָדָם לִרְאֹות מַה־יִּקְרָא־לֹו וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר
יִקְרָא־לֹו הָֽאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה הוּא שְׁמֹֽו׃

“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” (Genesis 2:19)

This is a beautiful image of the pre-fall state of Man, in fact at this point he was even doing this alone as Eve had not been formed. But here we have Man at the first profession as it really was, that of taxonomist, describing and naming all the wonderful things God had made, with God as the loving father bringing each of the Creations to Adam “to see what he would call them”.

We don’t have access to his language any more so we don’t know what he called them, how he used the perfect language God had given him to describe and name each one of the thousands of animals God had made and placed into the Garden, but we do know that God was pleased with Adam’s naming, and the names given were given the seal of divine approval as we see “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof”

Taxonomy was also a part of the modern revival of knowledge and Linnaeus, who was far from a perfect unfallen human being but nevertheless an exceptional mind, starting from the 1758 work Systema Naturae began the work again of naming all living things systematically. Linnaeus to Adam in this respect being something not unakin to Nehemiah to Solomon with regard to the Temple.

Maybe I am just a pedant, but it would be really nice if journalists who write about science or nature could take the trouble to use the proper conventions when writing the names of plants and animals. These conventions where begun by Linnaeus rather than Adam as far as we know, but they are accepted as law within the corpus of documents and institutions which have authority with regard to the naming of things these days. Namely: the genus should be written always with a capital letter and the species name with a small letter.

When I see a journalist who doesn’t adhere to this convention, then I know immediately that I am wasting my time trying to learn something form someone who himself, or herself, has no more idea than Jon Snow about anything, but at least I can look at the photographs, I suppose.

Just to give you one example of how it is supposed to work. The lovely orange and black bird in the image I have taken for this post is called various things in common parlance. It is known to us by the common name of Andean cock-of-the rock (to distinguish it from a related species with a more northerly range not touching that of this bird – that one is orange all over without a black back and is called the Guianan cock-of-the-rock. The Andean one is also known internationally by its local name in Quechua, or “Tunki”, and of course in various languages there are names for this species, with such highlights visible in the left column of Wikipedia that is the go-to resource for this sort of thing as Andenfelsenhahn, Андский скальный петушок, Gallito de las rocas peruano, Skalikurek andyjski, Skalňák andský, Coq-de-roche péruvien and many many more. Even a Spanish Esperantist calling himself Kani managed to make an Esperanto one and played the role of Adamo very nicely in giving it the name “Anda montarkoko”.

Nevertheless, each of these pages, to the extent that they are up-to-date, contain the information that the name of the bird in question is “Rupicola peruvianus (Latham 1790)”. The genus is Rupicola and the species is peruvianus, and the name afterwards is the name of the person who was Adam for the species – in this case Latham 1790 refers to the gentleman pictured on the right, namely John Latham, the author of several works on the birds of remoter parts of the world especially Australia, but “Latham 1790” means his Index Ornithologica, in which about 80 species of birds are described to science for the first time.

Now the reason why there are brackets around the author and the description date is that in this case the son of Adam we are talking about was not the first Adam. In this taxonomical arena you get second Adams also, and unlike in the soteriological arena you also get third and fourth ones. Other people have been involved in the question of taxonomy, unlike in the Garden of Eden where even Eve had not yet been formed, modern taxonomy is a team game, and in the case of our handsome fowl Linnaeus himself had got in first with a name for the Guianan cousin, which he called Pipra rupricola, in 1766.

Now here is where it gets interesting. Linnaeus had concocted the genus Pipra a bit earlier (he got the word from Aristotle but nobody to this day knows what Aristotle had in mind when he used it for a bird, other than the fact that it was a bird) and he put in it a group of birds called manakins (from the Dutch word for a little man, but this is the English term and outside of the scientific system – I mention the etymology in passing). This is in a family called Pipridae again using Linnaeo-Aristotelian word. The genus Pipra still exists and contains three species, none of which was actually put there by Linnaeus because two of them where only discovered later by other scientists and one of them was known to Linnaeus but placed by him in the genus Parus (I’m now talking about Parus aureolus, the lovely crimson-hooded manakin. Another bird placed in Parus by Linnaeus also got replaced to Pseudopipra, and in fact scientist after scientist, whether Gould or Reichenbach in the era before people looked at genomes or a whole set of them in the twenty-first century, revisited the genus Pipra and usually ransacked species out of it and carted them off to other passerine genera or other families of bird altogether – well you can’t have species from different families sharing a single genus that’s clear. So already probably in the mid 19th Century we have Pipra rupricola and Pipra peruvianus getting shunted off into the Cotingidae family and in need of their own new genus.

Now the convention is to work with what you’ve got and to look at every scientific work that’s been published, peer-reviewed and accepted to date. In fact there was a French ornithologist called Mathurin Jacques Brisson who had as early as 1760 (two years only after Linnaeus placed the Guianan cock-of-the-rock in Pipra and well before Latham followed suit) stated right here in this book to the left, here, placed the coq de la roche (of which he only knew the Guianan species and was unaaware there was another one) in a genus called Rupricola. He wasn’t buying the idea of having tanagers, manakins and a whole selection of dissimilar birds in one genus but he took Linnaeus’ “rupicola” or “rock-dwelling” species name and turned it into a genus name. From that point you should have Rupicola rupicola and had Brisson been the first describer and not the second one for that species it would have instead of (Linnaeus 1766) Brisson 1760 without the brackets. The mystery is how it comes to be that Brisson decides the genus but Linnaeus, describing the bird in 1766, gets to be the describer mentioned after the name. This particular part of the mystery is beyond me and therefore if anyone knows you are more than welcome to tell me in the comments.

If someone turns out to have a got a bit wrong, but have been mainly right but first anyway, they get the honorable mention, but it gets put in brackets. If the name is still what the discovere said it was, then there aren’t any brackets.

But in fact you do not need to state that part in order to be perfectly in order. Just as you do not need, when talking about the Andean cock-of-the-rock, as a continuing good example, to mention any of the four subspecies that have been identified.  John Gould (he of gouldian finch fame) was in on this already in 1859 with his subspecies Rupricola peruvianus sanguinolentus Gould 1859, no brackets as he got it in the right genus, Brisson’s one, which bird he found at the Western end while a couple of Germans called Cabanis and Heine were scouring the trees of Bolivia to find a different subspecies, and both of these get a mention in Rupricola peruvianus saturatus Cabanis & Heine 1859. Not only were these gentlemen in competition as to who could get the most new bird species, they were also in competition as to who could grow the best potential nesting sites for these discoveries on their own chins. Another contender in both categories was a latecomer, Władek Taczanowski, who found Rupricola peruvianus aequatorialis Taczanowski 1889 and also got away with no brackets. He was one of Poland’s finest, having discovered about 40 species and 20 subspecies of birds as well as having about 8 other ones names after him, but of course nobody every talks about him and there’s never so much as a street names after him, not even in his native Lubin, which is a great pity. I would like to ask Rafal What’s his Name, the Mayor of Warsaw, to honour this unknown but influential Polish scientist with a street name when the next ones get built. If any of my readers has any influence with him, please use your leverage.

Anyway, I’ll close out on his image.

About David J. James

56 year old UK origin Chartered Accountant and business consultant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written or spoken discussion, plays backgammon and a few other board games. Walks and listens to Audible for hours a day usually, and avoids use of the car. Conservative Christian, married to an angel with advanced Multiple Sclerosis. We have three kids, two of them autistic, and we live in Warsaw, Poland. On the board of the main British-Polish charity Fundacja Sue Ryder in Poland, and involved in the Vocational Autistic School of "Nie Z Tej Bajki" in Warsaw. Member of Gideons International. Serves on two committees of the Chamber of Auditors in Poland, and on several Boards and Supervisory Boards. Has own consultancy called Quoracy.com delivering business governance and audit/valuation solutions as well as mentoring. Author of the GoldList Method for systematic optimal use of the long-term memory in learning.

Posted on 04/01/2020, in Birds and Mammals, Blog only, Plants and Gardens, Uncle Davey's Natural Selection. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Absolutely with you on the Genus / species convention and the need to be rigorous here ; not so sure about the Jon Snow comment though. That’s a bit thick isn’t it ? I’m no fan of Jon Snow but surely he has some journalistic ability to be in his position within his profession ? On second thoughts, maybe not. After all you can rise to the top position in America having a talent for lying (and not particularly plausibly at that) as your main credential.
    However, I have noticed that dear old Snowy gets quite noticeably confused at times on his Channel 4 News appearances. To be fair, I suppose this could be owing to voices in his earpiece interfering with his interview ; multi tasking does not sit well with age.
    And now back to the studio…………

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    • I meant the Dothrakian Jon Snow rather than his august Beebeecian namesake, who does indeed know things.

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      • Ah ! Thank you. Now it comes clear …. You see, i’m totally out of touch. Even had to look up “Dothrakin” as I’ve never actually watched G.O.T. I’ve only heard about it. It really is edifying what one can learn through subscribing to HTV. Perhaps at some future website revision it should be renamed to “Hulipedia”. Food for thought ?

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        • Great idea! Later on I want to have much more information all classified up using the numerous topics and sub-topics on what used to be the right and is now the left panel.

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