The trouble with common names

Whenever I see an advertisement for the Cunjevoi restaurant, I have to stop and think twice. The first impression is not exactly tasty – the cunjevoi (Pyura stolonifera) is a salty, tough animal (a tunicate) that lives in colonies on rock platforms. It has two siphons, and filters seawater for organic materials. It’s called a sea squirt because it squirts a jet of water if it’s stepped on or disturbed.

The soft insides are often used by fishermen to bait their lines for rock-fishing (why doesn’t this word mean ‘fishing for rocks’?). Aboriginal people used to eat them, so maybe it’s just a question of cultural tastes.

You can see the orange lining inside this cunjevoi

Then I remember that the cunjevoi is also a rather attractive ‘elephant ear’ rainforest plant (Alocasia brisbanensis).

Local cunjevoi from the Wilson River, photo by Peter Woodard, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While a more attractive association with a restaurant, this plant is poisonous to humans! Perhaps not so good either for a restaurant.

This illustrates some of the confusion that can surround common names (e.g. the fish ‘whiting’ in South Australia is not the same species as the ‘whiting’ of NSW).

As a co-blogger pointed out, the general public including kids, even a 7-year-old boy of my acquaintance, are happy to use dinosaur species names (Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Velociraptor …), so perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to start using the genus name at least, instead of the common one.

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One Response to The trouble with common names

  1. Over the years, all of my -ology classes have focused on the Latin names of creatures with the rather interesting exception of ornithology, which has a very strong “non-scientific” following, presumably due to the “feather and fur phenomenon”. This phenomenon is said to occur in the public in regards to a general fondness of furred and feathered creatures. Conversely, scaled and slimy creatures are generally loathed by the public. In any case, there are at least two “official” bodies in the US, the American Birding Association and the American Ornithologists’ Union that decide on “official” common names and when we got to the species level of ornithological nomenclature, we were only required to learn the officially adopted common names of birds. I thought this was a little bit silly but I also know that Latin names are changing frequently these days due to advances in molecular genetics and a better understanding of cladistics, which makes it almost as difficult as using common names to relate to our natural world. I vote for no more Latin name changes until the DNA sequencing of a species has been fully analyzed and finalized! Just my $.02…

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