‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean?’

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

Podargus strigoides Tawny Frogmouth.

In this episode of the series I am being a little self-indulgent as the subject matter is my favourite bird species, The Tawny Frogmouth. And it’s not only my favourite bird. There are over 10,000 species of birds throughout the world and the Tawny Frogmouth is the world’s ‘most Instagrammable bird’. This curious-looking bird can be a master of camoflage. Tawny Frogmouths are surprisingly common, but seldomly noticed by most people. They are active at night, but stationary during the day blending into their tree roost.

A rather confusing bird.

For many of those who do have the pleasure of sighting this enigmatic bird their initial reaction is ‘oh, look, it’s an owl!’ For those of us with some knowledge of birds the automatic response is ‘no, it’s not an owl…it’s related to the Nightjar family’. The below exchange on a recent Facebook post is quite typical of the regular confusion:

Tawny Frogmouth meme photo
Tawny Frogmouth owl meme: unknown source.

Person A: ‘Is this beautiful owl a Tawny?’

Person B: ‘Tawny Frogmouth. A night bird, but not related to owls’.

Person C: ‘As mentioned above. It is a Tawny Frogmouth- which is in its own family, more closely related to the Nightjars.’ 

Person D: ‘Definitely not an owl. Definitely a Tawny Frogmouth from the Nightjar family.’

            Person C: ‘Nope, from the frogmouth family.’

Person D: ‘A beautiful nightjar, not an owl.’

            Person E: ‘While they are closely related with Nightjars, the Frogmouth are actually in their own family Podargus.’

As you can see, it’s a discussion that brings out the inner pedant in birdwatchers. The meme below is good symbolism of that pedantry.

Why all the confusion?

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus…neither an Owl, nor Nightjar…or Frogmouth for that matter.

Perhaps the regular innacurate naming of the Tawny Frogmouth can be excused. An earlier common name of the bird was in fact Frogmouth Owl. There are similarities in size and shape between a Tawny Frogmouth and a Boobook Owl, which probably doesn’t help with identification issues.

The modern common name of the species is fairly literal and descriptive. Tawny refers to the grey/brown colour while it’s broad, gaping mouth is reminiscent of that of an amphibian species.

The scientific name of Podargus strigoides was given by the famed ornithologist John Latham in 1801. The bird was the first of the three species within the Podargus genus to be described by an ornithologist. As you will see below, there is quite some detail within the two words that comprise the bird’s name. As detailed as it is, the name probably doesn’t do much to clarify the ongoing confusion with owls.

A bird with origins in myths and legends?

So let’s break it all down to try make some sense of all this: Pod-argus strig-oides:

Pod: Greek for foot. Think podiatry, pertaining to feet.

Podargus: relating to the medical term Podagra. Podagra is the medical condition of Gout, relating to inflammation or arthritis of the foot. For the purpose of birds within the Podargus genus it translates to ‘weak-footed’.

Strig: derived from the ancient Greek and Latin ‘Strix’. In ancient mythology, the Strix (plural Striges) had a number of incarnations throughout different regions of Europe. These interpretations usually involve demons who would take the form of or transform into owls or owl-like creatures. These myths usually involved the demons – or witches – being women. And they would often feast on livers and other internal organs. If you’re interested in more reading on this please look up Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals by John Cuthbert Lawson, 1910.

The term Strix would be carried across these ancient times of folklore and would be applied to actual owls. The largest family of owls, Strigidae, are also known as ‘True Owls’.

Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa (a ‘true owl’)

Oides: Ancient Greek meaning likeness or resembles

How does this relate to our beloved Tawny Frogmouth?

We have deconstructed the scientific name of the Tawny Frogmouth, now let’s translate that deconstruction.

Gout tends to be a medical condition that affects the feet of people who drink too much beer or eat too much red meat and are generally overweight. While I have seen some large Tawny Frogmouths I am not aware of any whom drink any amount of alcohol. Their diet is certainly carnivorous, but I don’t suspect them of overeating red meat. Tawny Frogmouths are considered to be ‘weak-footed’ though.

Their feet give them great balance and stability for roosting over many hours. But Tawny Frogmouth’s feet are not strong enough to catch or tear at prey. They use that broad mouth to catch their prey in flight or as the prey passes the bird’s roost.

The species name of strigoides simply translates to ‘like Striges’, effectively ‘like an owl’. The Tawny Frogmouth’s scientific name of Podargus strigoides means a bird that has weak feet and is ‘like an owl’… but it’s not an owl of course!

‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean’?

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

EUCALYPTUS CAMALDULENSIS

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

So let’s use the aforementioned Eucalyptus camaldulensis to start deconstructing some of these names. Eucalyptus is the name of the genus that includes over 700 tree species within the Myrtaceae family. The River Red Gum is a very Australian tree. Not only did it provide early settlers with quality building timber, some of them were retained as livestock shelter; travelling through open farm country in much of Australia the paddocks and fields are punctuated by these broad, beautiful trees. And throughout the hundreds of years of their existence these trees provide habitat to a diverse range of our wonderful wildlife. This is a tree that has been labelled ‘Australia’s tree’ or an ‘Australian Icon’. So it would be fair to assume that the River Red Gum’s scientific name would reflect its place as an Australian cornerstone, right? Well we need to think about the time and events of when our River Red Gum was ‘christened’ with its less obvious name.

In December 1816 botanist and naturalist English Allan Cunningham arrived in Sydney after spending two years collecting plant specimens in Brazil having left England 4 years earlier. Before he died in Sydney in 1839, Cunningham had collected several hundred specimens and seeds of Australian plants. Some of these samples he believed would replace the ‘imperfect’ specimens collected by the more famous botanist Joseph Banks. In 1817 one of the plants’ seeds Cunningham collected was that of what we now know as the River Red Gum tree.

Meanwhile in Naples, Italy, the German botanist Friedrich Dehnhardt was busy curating gardens for a man known as the Count of Camalduli. The Count was part of an order of monks whose history dated back to 1012. The name of this order of monks was the ‘Camaldoli’. Camaldoli is derived from the Italian words Campo (countryside) and Maldolo. Count Maldolo was said to be the man who donated the countryside field to St. Romuald who established a monastery on the site in Tuscany.

Tuscany, Italy

It’s unclear how they were aware of each other, but Allan Cunningham sent some of his River Red Gum seeds to Friedrich Dehnhardt. Dehnhardt duly planted the seeds at L’Hortus Camaldulensis di Napoli, the private gardens of the Count of Camalduli. These trees were allowed to grow until the 1920s. Given that he was the curator of the Camaldoli gardens and that is where he studied the plant, Dehnhardt believed that this Eucalyptus tree species should be named in honour of the gardens. But that wasn’t the end of naming this iconic Aussie bush tree.

Friedrich Dehnhardt named The River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis in 1832, but his botanical work and naming of the species was largely unknown for some years. Other botanists had their own take on the tree in the following years. In 1847 another German botanist, Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal, named the plant Eucalyptus rostrata. This name, however, had already been applied to another Eucalyptus species by Spanish botanist Antonio José Cavanilles. In the 1850s the famed German/Australian botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller named specimens of the tree Eucalyptus longirostris. In 1934 Australian botanist William Blakely declared that the rightful botanical name for the River Red Gum was Eucalyptus camaldulensis. Blakely assisted British botanist Joseph Maiden who was considered the foremost authority on Eucalyptus species, writing the eight volume A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus.

Australian indigenous Aboriginals have many names for this wonderful tree that they have witnessed over tens of thousands of years. Throughout areas of Victoria it is known as Be-Al. Other Aboriginal names include Yarrowee, Bealiba and Warracknabeal. If you are fortunate enough to admire one of these quintessential Australian trees just remember it was described and named by a German in Italy from seeds sent to him from an Englishman.