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NatureSpeak Articles

A Gorilla By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father, and refuse thy name.

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet . Act ii. Scene 2)

Two of the lines most often quoted from Shakespeare appear at the end of the quote above. This is the scene where Romeo is hidden in the bushes pining for his forbidden love – forbidden because Romeo’s family (the Montagues) and Juliet’s family (the Capulets) are engaged in a family feud that would make municipal elections seem tame.

Juliet asks: "What’s in a name?" It’s a profound philosophical question since, as philosophers say, the name is not the thing. Nonetheless, a conversation without consistent names for the same things would be pretty difficult. This was the case in science well into the 1700s.

Then a Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus, introduced his Systema naturae , a revolutionary approach to naming and classifying species. We still use the basics of the system he first introduced in 1735, notably the unique binomial ("two name") given each species. Perhaps the most famous application of Linnaeus’ system was the stop action shots in the Roadrunner cartoons. I remember one, when the coyote was about to be blown up for the 10th time, that read something like "Wile E. Coyote ( Dynamitus explodicus )."

Part of the joke was that it played on the way scientists really did (and do) name things. And the result was always a lot funnier than the real name, in this case, Coyote ( Canis latrans ).

The scientific naming system is used for every species, from coyotes to the bacteria causing strep throat ( Streptococcus pyogenes ). We intuitively know that coyotes are dog-like (canine), and scientific naming recognizes their close relationship with wolves ( Canis lupus ) and domestic dogs ( Canis familiaris ).

The Latinized names parodied by the Roadrunnercartoons make this powerful naming system even more useful. The common language allows scientists from around the world, regardless of mother tongue, to communicate.

Some of these cumbersome Latin names are part of our everyday speech – just check out kids’ books filled with animals like hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius ), rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis ), and gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla). Kids and PhDs even share some full scientific names, like Boa constrictor and Tyrannosaurus rex .

Other examples of the everyday usage of scientific names are not so obvious, but are crucial if you ever want to win at Scrabble. Think of the most common domesticated mammals: dogs ( Canis familiarus ), cats ( Felis domesticus), cows ( Bos bos ), and horses ( Equus caballus). Their names are the roots for many English usages:

When you go to the dogs, you can bite off a lot with your canine teeth. Canis major, the constellation of the Big Dog, is where you’ll find the dog star, Sirius. If you ever want to say someone’s catty without them knowing, call them feline. The vacant stare of cows chewing their cud leads to the mild insult "bovine."

Equestrians know all about the equine roots of horse. But they may not know they would once have competed in a hippodrome – hippo being the Greek name for horse (and " Hippopotamus " means river horse). The species name, caballus , is the root of the words caballeros, cavalier, and cavalry.

The rose Shakespeare referred to was the briar rose ( Rosa canina ). You don’t find briar rose growing naturally in Whistler, but what the Bard says is true: our native roses do smell as sweet.

Upcoming Events :

Thursday, Nov. 14th — Chris Czajkowski, Author of "Life of a Wilderness Dweller" and "Log Building for the Single Woman," Myrtle Philip School, 8 p.m.

Back by popular demand! Chris is a very entertaining speaker who single-handedly built a cabin in the Chilcotin wilderness, 30 kilometres from the nearest road. She’s written four books, contributed to Harrowsmith, and was a regular correspondent with Peter Gzowski’s Morningside on CBC Radio. Come early to see her nature-themed artwork and books for sale. Members $3; non-members $5; children free.

Thursday, Nov. 28th, 6:15 to 7 p.m., MY Place — Whistler Naturalists Annual General Meeting . The Whistler Naturalists encourage anyone interested in getting more involved to join us for our third AGM. New board members welcome. For details, contact Bob Brett.

Thursday, Nov. 28th — Andy MacKinnon, "Temperate Rainforests," 7:30 p.m., MY Place.

Andy MacKinnon, best known as the co-author of "Plants of Coastal B.C.," is an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic speaker. A mushroom guy (mycologist) by training, Andy has studied and monitored temperate rainforests through his senior position with the B.C. government. His presentation will describe temperate rainforests (including those in Whistler) and the challenges in managing them for a number of uses, including the opportunities and risks of harvesting non-forest timber products (for example, mushrooms and plants for the floral trade). Admission by donation.

Written by: Bob Brett


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