The common names of South African snakes are well known to the public, but their scientific names remain a mystery to most of us. Don’t know what a Montaspis gilvomaculatus is? Read on and find out.
Certain wildlife groups consider it fashionable to use scientific names in general conversation, others less so. From what I’ve seen and heard, the bird and butterfly folks seldom use scientific names but the reptile enthusiasts are another story altogether.
Even among newcomers and youngsters you will hear comments like: “Let’s go up to Sani Pass this weekend and look for the Montaspis gilvomaculatus. It hasn’t been seen in more than 20 years.”
For the uninformed, Montaspis gilvomaculatus is the cream-spotted mountain snake, known from descriptions made by half-a-dozen individuals during the 1990s.
So, what’s the deal with scientific names?
In the Classification and Relationships chapter of my book, A Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa, the first paragraph reads: “The ability to classify is one of the fundamental attributes of human intelligence. – Lynn Raw.”
For primitive man, it was important to identify what he could and couldn’t eat, and also to know what was dangerous and what was benign.
Such groupings or classifications are obviously limited to the extent of our knowledge. The objective is to group similar objects or concepts according to similarities and design.
Common names for the same species vary from region to region. The Cape cobra (Naja nivea) is a good example. It is also known as the geelslang, koper kapel or bakkopslang.
In parts of Limpopo and the Northwest Province, the snouted cobra (Naja annulifera) is also known as the geelslang and on the Highveld the rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) is often called the bakkopslang – confusing, to say the least. Can you imagine ending up in hospital after a snakebite and the Cuban doctor being told you were bitten by a bakkopslang?
In 1758, a very clever man by the name of Carolus Linnaeus introduced a system of scientific names that is still in use today, but obviously with some fine-tuning and modifications.
Most species have two Latin or Greek names called a binomen. The first word, the genus, always begins with a capital letter and is given to a group of species with similarities. So all our cobras are in the genus Naja and the rinkhals, which is not a cobra for a variety of reasons (it has keeled scales and gives birth to live young, whereas cobras lay eggs) is in its own genus, Hemachatus.
The second name begins with a small letter and is the species. Both of these names are always printed in italics, or if that is not possible, are underlined. So the Cape cobra is written as Naja nivea or Naja nivea.
Once a specific animal or plant has been properly described and assigned a scientific name, scientists (and anyone else) know exactly which animal is being dealt with. Once the natural history and distribution of that animal is better understood, it can be given the attention it deserves. For example, the law cannot protect an endangered animal if we have no idea what it is, how it behaves and where it occurs.
Another advantage is that the scientific classification removes the language barrier. If a foreign scientist (or lay person, for that matter) mentions Naja nivea, everyone will know exactly what snake he is referring to.