All in the name

What we can learn from animal names

The Titicaca water frog, the lesser mouse-deer, Azara’s agouti, Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat: when exploring Zoo and Tierpark Berlin, visitors sometimes stumble across rather oddly named animals. In this blog entry, we take a closer look at the origins of certain animal names.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” reasons Juliet, lamenting the fact that her lover Romeo bears the surname of her family’s sworn enemies. The meaning behind this quote is clear: the name doesn’t matter, it’s what’s behind the name that counts! But while Shakespeare’s poetic musings may be valid in the literary world, names have been causing problems for botanists and zoologists for generations. After all, how could a meaningful discussion be had about the rose if one person calls it a tulip and another a carnation?

A confusing landscape

While laypersons and botanists are in relative agreement over the name “rose”, many other life forms have a myriad of monikers. The names red panda, lesser panda and red bear-cat, for example, all refer to the same animal – and that’s just in English! In German, the terms Katzenbär (cat-bear), Roter Panda (red panda), Kleiner Panda (small panda), Goldhund (golden dog) and Feuerfuchs (firefox) are all in common use.

Less is more

In scientific discussions about plants and animals, it is therefore very helpful to have a single name that is understood by all. Anyone who has taken a closer look at the Zoo and the Tierpark signs will know that, alongside the German and English, we also always show the animal’s scientific name. The lion, for example, is called Panthera leo, the Asian elephant Elephas maximus, and the ring-tailed lemur Lemur catta.

Getting things in order

It was Swedish natural scientist Carl von Linné who was primarily responsible for bringing order to the tangled jungle of animal and plant names. He introduced unambiguous scientific names in 1758 – and these names remain valid to this day. Most scientific names use Latin or Greek words, as they were the fashionable languages among western scholars at the time.

Binary nomenclature

Since then, zoology has described species using two words. The first word represents the genus, the second the species. The scientific name for the wild horse, for example, is composed of Equus – a genus in the horse family that includes donkeys and zebras – and ferus, which denotes the species. If you see three words in a name, that generally means the animal is a subspecies – e.g. Equus ferus przewalskii, the Przewalski’s horse.

No more red panda-monium

Zoologists remain grateful to Linné and his colleagues for their bright idea. Since then, whether they’re from India, Australia or Germany, all zoologists know what pretty, reddish-brown creature they’re talking about when they refer to Ailurus fulgens.

Common problems

However, outside of expert circles, so-called “common” names are still in circulation. These names are generally simple, understandable and long-established. But some still leave people rather baffled. So where do they actually come from?

Names based on appearance and behaviour

A naked mole rat is a hairless rodent that looks like a rat and burrows like a mole, though it is in fact more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas, and guinea pigs. The emperor tamarin, meanwhile, is named for its resemblance to the German emperor Wilhelm II, who sported an impressive moustache. And one look at any dove in the “bleeding-hearts” genus is enough to explain this name’s origin. Dik-dik, on the other hand, is an onomatopoeic name derived from the small antelope’s alarm call. First attempts at naming animals generally consisted of detailed descriptions regarding the animal’s appearance and behaviour, such as the way they moved or their favourite food – the jumping shrew and blue-tailed bee-eater provide good examples of these strategies.

Names based on geography

No one has any doubts about where the Asian elephant is originally from. And it’s clear that the lowland anoa prefers a different type of habitat to the mountain gorilla. One would know not to search for polar bears, Arctic foxes or snowy owls in a tropical rainforest. And things start getting even more geographically specific with the Galápagos tortoise, Vietnamese sika, and Sumatran tiger. As for the Montserrat oriole, the name is almost all you’d need to track it down, as outside zoos this bird is only found on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat.

Human namesakes

The Prince Alfred’s deer, the Edwards’s pheasant, the Dybowski’s twinspot finch – sometimes animals end up bearing the names of explorers or rulers. The Grévy’s zebra is so named, for example, simply because French president Jules Grévy received one of the animals as a gift from an African emperor in the 1880s. Russian-Polish explorer Przewalski was somewhat more actively involved in the naming of the Przewalski’s horse, as he brought the skull and fur of this as-yet-undiscovered wild horse back to Europe.

Foreign roots

And then there are names whose origins are less easy to deduce, like kiang, onager and peccary. These are often words derived from the name given to the animal by the local people. The word “tamandua”, for example, comes from the Tupi language of Brazil and describes the ability to catch ants – a fitting name for this genus of medium-sized anteaters.

But whatever their origins, animal names certainly provide an endless supply of winning hangman words! Here are some of our favourites:

●    Bare-faced go-away-bird
●    Kafue lechwe antelope
●    Tasselled wobbegong
●    Strange-tailed tyrant
●    Snub-nosed monkey


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But whatever their origins, animal names certainly provide an endless supply of winning hangman words! Here are some of our favourites: