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Bayou-Diversity (31 March 2019) Humans have been putting names on plants and animals ever since the first cave man found it advantageous to convey to his mate the difference between a cave cricket and a cave bear. As our species developed culturally and interactions between groups who spoke different languages increased, the problem surfaced again. The folks on the other side of the mountain were peddling rugs from an animal they called moose, but which were known to the prospective buyers as camels. It was a problem of conflicting common names, and it got worse when scientists came along. A Swedish fellow named Linneaus began working on the issue in the 1740’s by developing a system to give a two-part Latin name to every plant and animal on the planet. By doing so, when scientists in Japan, Somalia and Brazil heard someone like me from Rocky Branch, Louisiana, mention Didelphis marsupialis they knew he was talking about the North American opossum. (Note: Latin names are supposed to be italicized, but that ain’t easy on Facebook!)

The system has been fine tuned over the years and works pretty well for scientists with only occasional squabbles between the splitters and lumpers – those who like to divide species based on minute differences, and those who throw everything similar under one Latin moniker. Still, the layman who did not wish to memorize thousands of tongue-twisting dead language words and match them with plants and animals in his personal memory bank was in the dark, or at least thought to be so by those who claimed to be in the light. The bright guys then made a list of standardized common names in an effort to force abandonment of colloquialisms. Many have refused to go there though, and examples abound just in the bird world. The term “di-dipper” survives in the face of the official pied-billed grebe. “Water turkeys” still swim as double-crested cormorants, “squealers” roost as wood ducks, and “buzzards” yet soar with almighty vultures.

Many years ago as a budding scientist I might have corrected the misguided individual who called a wood stork a gourdhead, but not today. It feels better to sit on the bayou bank in the shade of a bitter pecan (not a water hickory as the books claim, or even worse Carya aquatica) while fishing for chinkapins (not redear sunfish or Lepomis microlophus), and listening to the songs of wild canaries (instead of prothonotary warblers or Protonotaria citrea) – sort of like a cave man I suppose. [adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country; LSU Press]


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