Friday, January 1, 2010

From aye-aye to zyzzyva: animals with funny names

George Waters column for March 2, 2014:

I have been fascinated with the animal kingdom ever since, as a kid, I learned there was a type of parrot in New Zealand named the kaka. My understanding that scientists have a sense of humor has only grown over the years, and today I join them with my own contributions. These are real animal names. Some traits have been "enhanced," however.

Aye-aye: a noctural lemur-like animal in Madagascar. Not nearly as dangerous as its cousin, the aye-aye-cap'n, easily distinguishable by its red-striped shirt.

Bulbul: a gregarious, Middle Eastern songbird. The running of these in Pamplona is neither dangerous nor highly publicized.

Chamois: a goatlike antelope native to the mountainous regions of Europe, and useful in hand-drying freshly washed cars, if you can manage to hold them still.

Coypu: a large South American rodent, very shy about its toilet activities being witnessed.

Dunnart: an insectivorous, narrow-footed marsupial with no patience at all for paintings.

Froghopper: a leaping and spitting insect. Also, a name absolutely ripe for use on an energy drink.

Hammerkop: an African heron with a distinctive head crest. Also, the guy in charge of enforcing "hammer time."

Hocco: South American bird resembling a turkey (see also: the lost Marx brother.)

Langur: a long-tailed Indian monkey renowned for its laziness.

Malbrouk: a small, tusked East Asian deer, malevolent cousin of the standard brouk.

Murre: a white-breasted northern sea bird, delicious basted with frankincense.

Potto: small, nocturnal, completely drunk West African monkey.

Puku: what happens to the Potto eventually.

Raad: a type of electric catfish. Yes, you read that right. Not to be confused with the very similar totalli raad.

Zyzzyva: a South American weevil. Look no further for proof that scientists are sometimes just messing with us.

Some people might point to rockets or satellites as the crowning achievement of humanity, but how about some love for the guy or gal who came up with naming the caracara, the tucutucu and the colocolo. They were, to critter naming, what Charlie Parker was to the sax.

We will never know who came up with the word junco or sitatunga, pichi or scanderoon. (A scanderoon sounds to me like a politician in a lot of trouble.) I picture those folks back in the misty eons of pre-history, standing around, when suddenly one spots the local amphibious opossum, rubs his chin and suggests, "Yapok?"

"Mmm. Yapok," another says, admiringly. And a critter is thereafter named.

I know what you are thinking: there are amphibious opossums?! Yes. Don't say I never taught you anything.