Rhode Island’s state bird, the Rhode Island red, known as Gallus gallus

Rhode Island’s state bird, the Rhode Island red, known as Gallus gallus

New Mexico’s state mammal, the black bear. Its scientific name is Ursus americanus.

New Mexico’s state mammal, the black bear. Its scientific name is Ursus americanus.

Arkansas’s state fish, the alligator gar. To scientists it is Atractosteus spatula.

Arkansas’s state fish, the alligator gar. To scientists it is Atractosteus spatula.

Missouri’s state amphibian, the American bullfrog. Its scientific name is Lithobates catesbeianus.

Missouri’s state amphibian, the American bullfrog. Its scientific name is Lithobates catesbeianus.

West Virginia’s state reptile, the timber rattlesnake. In Latin, Crotalus horridus.

West Virginia’s state reptile, the timber rattlesnake. In Latin, Crotalus horridus.

What’s in a Name?

Posted: July 1, 2019

Names identify us. They show where we belong. Names connect families. Animal names bring order in the same ways.

God created us with a desire to understand and order things. In Genesis, God gives Adam dominion over all the animals. Adam got to name each one! Did he look closely at each animal? Probably. He might have looked at the animal’s size, shape, coloring, and personality. The Bible doesn’t tell us how Adam named the animals. But it does tell us that God gave him the big job of bringing order into the animal kingdom.

Today, animals have different types of names. They have common names and scientific names. Common names tell us a lot about animals. These names are like nicknames. How do you think the hellbender—also known as the snot otter, lasagna lizard, mud dog, and spotted water gecko—got so many common names? It took time. It also helped that hellbenders live in a big range. Over time, the creature got nicknames from all kinds of people in different places where it lived. Common animal names are fun, descriptive, and easy to remember.

Scientific names are a different story! An animal’s scientific name might be hard even to say. Scientific names have two parts. Part one is the genus. It starts with a capital letter. The genus name belongs to a small group of animals that have things in common. An Eastern hellbender has the genus name Cryptobranchus. This word refers to hidden gills. (Do some research. Which other animals belong in the “hidden gills” group?)

The second part of a scientific name is the species. This name begins with a lowercase letter. The species is a specific name. The Eastern hellbender has the species name alleganiensis. This word means “belonging to the Allegheny Mountains.” Both the genus and species names are Latin words. This makes animal names the same for scientists and critter-fans of every language.  

So, what’s in a name? Answer: an awful lot! Names describe. They bring order. And, as in the case of the Eastern hellbender, names tend to stick around—especially common old nicknames!