Scientists leap beyond Latin to give local flair to species names

  • Indian scientists have been breaking away from scientific naming conventions by christening new species after local culture, communities and characteristics, a practice that is inherent in Indian science for decades.
  • Taxonomy in India goes beyond Latin names and words relying on factors such as species distribution and behaviour while honouring indigenous knowledge.
  • Regional and cultural considerations in naming, enhance species identification and citizen involvement in conservation initiatives, say experts.

A decade ago, scientist Gururaja K.V., who has discovered 23 species of frog from the Western Ghats, and his team unearthed a frog species in the ancient swamp forest of Kathalekan in Karnataka. Departing from the customary practice within the scientific community to name a species in Latin, they christened it Kumbara night frog (Nyctibatrachus kumbara). Kumbara is the Kannada term for potter. The frog got its name due to its distinctive breeding pattern wherein the male frog covers the eggs with mud to shield them from predators.

Following courtship, the male and female frog assume an upright stance, with the female commencing a handstand with the male astride her back. She deposits six to eight eggs on a twig before withdrawing. “The eggs are pigmented and susceptible to predation by crabs. The male frog adeptly encases them in mud from the stream, rendering the clutch indistinguishable from the surrounding muddy detritus,” Gururaja elucidates in his field notes.

Kumbara night frog discovered from the ancient swamp forest of Kathalekan in Karnataka. In a departure from the conventional practice of giving Latin names to species, Indian scientists are naming new species after locations they are found, in a bid to augment community participation in conservation. Photo by Gururaja K.V.

Later in 2016, Gururaja’s team discovered another species from the coastal plains of Kumta, Karnataka. They christened the frog whose call bore resemblance to that of a white-throated kingfisher, Karaavali skittering frog (Euphlyctis karaavali), in honour of Karaavali, the coastal region of Karnataka. Another frog discovered from the catchment area of the Tunga river was named Tunga night frog (Nyctibatrachus tunga).

Gururaja, a batrachologist at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art Design and Technology, MAHE, Bengaluru, is among the few Indian taxonomists who are moving away from the age-old tradition of utilising eponyms (assigning scientific names for species after individuals) and employing Latin in scientific and common names — a practice observed since the 1700s when Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus initially formulated the taxonomic system. According to Gururaja, the concept of naming species after the locations where they are found aims to foster a connection between the local community and the species, instilling a sense of responsibility towards its conservation.

Giving a local flair to names of new species has been a practice among Indian scientists for decades, borrowing from literature, location or the scientist themselves.

More recently, in December 2023, a new butterfly species discovered in the picturesque Meghamalai hills of the southern Western Ghats was christened Meghamalai silverline (Cigaritis meghamalaiensis), after its location. The Tamil word Meghamalai means sub-tropical evergreen forests, also called cloud forests, which are found in these higher altitudes. As the British discovered 334 out of the 337 butterfly species in the Western Ghats, a majority of them have Latin even in common names, which are incomprehensible to the general public. Only a handful of butterflies are named in Tamil, although a majority of them are found in the Tamil Nadu region of Western Ghats. “Just like Tirunelveli is famous for its halwa, Meghamalai should be remembered for the newly discovered butterfly species,” says Ramasamy S.R.K., a naturalist and one of the discoverers of Meghamalai silverline.

What’s in a name?

Traditionally, taxonomy has relied on scientific or Latin names derived from morphological characteristics. “Latin was predicted to be a universal language then, a reason why not only the names of new species, but also abstracts of scientific papers were written in Latin,” Gururaja points out. These names are organised by family, with various genera falling under each family and numerous species classified within genera, in accordance with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Nonetheless, biologists have frequently argued for the need to depart from this practice to modernise taxonomy.

Echoing Gururaja’s sentiments, Len Gillman, a professor of biogeography at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Shane Wright from the University of Auckland, propose a change in taxonomic procedures in which scientific names mirror indigenous names for plants and animals. In a commentary paper published in October 2022 in Communications Biology, they advocate for this shift in taxonomic protocols.

Scientist Gururaja and team conduct a frog survey at Bisle Ghat in Karnataka. Photo by Gururaja K.V.

Early this year, a new frog species near Bengaluru was named Sphaerotheca varshaabhu for its characteristic of coming out of the deep burrows only when it rains. “Varshaabhu in Sanskrit means ‘the one that comes out of the earth during rains’. The word finds mention in the early literary work, Amara Kosha,” points out Chetan Nag K.S., associate professor at Jain University who is one of the eight scientists who discovered the species. According to him, they avoided a location-specific name since the possibility of the species being found in other regions couldn’t be ruled out. The frog, found in the city landscape, is threatened by rapid developmental activities and unplanned expansion in Bengaluru.

Honouring indigenous knowledge

In addition to considering geographical distribution and behaviour, certain scientists are incorporating cultural significance when christening newly discovered species. Stauroneis lepchae, a novel diatom species discovered in Sikkim, bears the name of the Lepcha tribe in recognition of a local field assistant from the tribe who assisted the researchers, as detailed by researcher Karthick Balasubramanian of the Agharkar Research Institute, Pune, who discovered the species. By dedicating the diatom to the tribe, Balasubramanian aims to spotlight diatoms, minute algae fundamental to the aquatic ecosystem and accountable for a quarter of the earth’s oxygen. Among the diatom species he has named are Stauroneis sholaii from Shola forests, Stauroneis lateritica from Western Ghat’s lateritic rock plateaus and Cymbella pavanensis from the Pavana river.

Karaavali skittering frog. The species was named in honour of the location where it was discovered. Photo by Seshadri K.S.

Across Indian states, regional names for species have been found to evoke deeper connections among people. A brownish orange butterfly named Maravam in Tamil (common name in English is Tamil Yeoman) became the state butterfly of Tamil Nadu. While adding a local touch to the taxonomic process might not trigger conservation overnight, scientists believe that it is easier to spread the message of conservation. Naming the endangered purple frog or pignose frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis) from Kerala’s Western Ghats that emerges from under the ground for only one day after mythological king Mahabali who is believed to have been banished to the underworld and given permission to meet his subjects once a year has helped the local population take a special interest in its sightings and conservation. Gururaja says that he has noticed during educational programmes in schools that the school children find it amusing that there are many interesting species in their backyard. “They also feel emotionally connected to the fact that certain species like the skittering frog  face threat from the expansion of highways and conversion of land for non-agricultural purposes,” he says.

Read more: A budding botanists quest for plant-indigenous community relations


Banner image: A male Meghamalai silverline named after Meghamalai hills in Tamil Nadu. A majority of butterflies from the Western Ghats was discovered by the British and goes by Latin names. Some scientists are giving local names to new butterflies. Photo by Ramasamy S.R.K.

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