How to describe animals

Slow worms are not worms, and they are not slow.

Sometimes confusion must come before clarity. And that is never more true than when describing our native UK wildlife.

For example, slow worms are not worms, and they are not slow.

Whales swim in our seas, but the impressive killer whale, which frequents the coast of northwest Scotland, is not a whale at all. That is why many call it an orca.

Bucks roam our countryside: male deer, hares, ferrets and rabbits are all bucks. But interestingly, none actually buck (only horses do). Rabbits give birth to kittens, but kittens can also be baby cats.

It's almost impossible to describe a butterfly that cannot be a moth, and a moth that cannot be a butterfly, while similar is true for frogs and toads.

WORDY WILDLIFE

The common names of animals are nouns. But when describing animal behaviour, the same words are sometimes used as verbs.

  • A perch is a freshwater fish, whereas birds might perch on a branch. It is an accident of language that the same word is used both ways. It is no accident that swifts, those fast flying birds that look similar to swallows, are called swifts. That's because they fly fast.
  • Buck (noun) is a name given to the males of many species. Its origin is thought to be the German word buc, meaning deer. However, the verb 'to buck' can only be applied to a jumping horse.

Verbs can also be turned back into nouns to help describe wildlife.

  • Animals such as moles that burrow become burrowers
  • Whales or barnacles that filter the water for food are filter feeders etc.

Birds perch, while perch swim in our lakes. And those killer whales we mentioned are predatory mammals, that have sharp teeth and eat meat. But they are not carnivores, not strictly speaking. Other iconic black and white creatures, our badgers, are also mammals, though not nearly as predatory. They have sharp teeth, but eat less meat. Yet they are technically carnivores.

Confused?

You have every reason to be, because much confusion around how we describe wildlife comes from the confusing ways in which we name it.

So when you describe wildlife, it's important to understand which type of name you are using, and why that matters.

For example, wildlife can be described by their common names, i.e. a badger, perch or deer.

Wildlife can also be described by the group of animals to which they belong; badgers are mammals.

By their behaviour; a badger is an omnivore that eats a variety of foods.

Or by their scientific group; technically a badger is a carnivore, not because it eats meat, but because it is related to other weasel-like animals, as well as dogs, cats, bears and seals that share a suite of inherited characteristics, such as sharp carnassial teeth. All these animals belong in the order Carnivora, which is why badgers are technically carnivores.

Common names

Most people know animals by their common names, and there are no hard and fast rules as to what these should be.

Lapwing: BBC Nature A peewit, hornpie or lapwing?

Commonly used descriptions and names for much wildlife have changed with time and vary by location, spelling and capitalisation.

A lapwing, a small wading bird, is variously called a peewit, green plover, teuchit, hornpie or flopwing, depending on its location in the UK. In Gaelic it is a curracag. In Irish a pilibĂ­n.

Many names and descriptions have become an integral part of our cultural landscape, influencing the names of drinking establishments, towns, how we speak, and our art.

Think of a pub called The Swan in Shrewsbury. There, a local might ask another to stop badgering them, as they want to read Watership Down, a classic English novel about a group of rabbits given human characteristics.

Start Quote

A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass.”

End Quote From the best-selling novel Watership Down by Richard Adams

The attributes we assign to wildlife are often co-opted, becoming more widely understood cultural symbols. The thistle of Scotland symbolises nobility and chivalry, an example of floriography.

Because common names vary, they can cause confusion.

But giving a little-known, perhaps new species a common name is also a powerful way to be able to remember it, talk about it, and make people care about it.

Natural England runs an annual competition to name newly discovered British species for this reason. In 2012, it named a rare wasp that lives in southern England as the Cutpurse wasp, due to its habit of feeding exclusively on purse web spiders.

Animal types

Animals or plants can be informally grouped, defined often by their behaviour or where they live; such as flying insects, or forest flowers. These groupings often have no formal scientific basis.

Or they can be formally grouped into scientific categories. Each of these groups is defined by a suite of characteristics that each animal or plant within must share.

Badgers (once known as brock) are mammals, belonging to the scientific grouping Mammalia. Like badgers, all mammals have fur and all female mammals have mammary glands, which they use to provide milk for their young.

Badger: BBC Nature Brock the badgering badger

Swifts are birds, belonging to the scientific group called Aves. All birds have feathers and wings.

There is no single scientific grouping of fish, however. It is a common name used to describe animals that swim, have fins, and look like 'fish'. Scientists group fish into discrete categories. Some fish have bony skeletons, and are known as Osteichthyes. Others, such as sharks, have skeletons made of cartilage and are called Chondrichthyes.

To understand how scientists formally group and name animals it is important to understand how the Linnaean system of nomenclature works, a classification system that is easier to grasp than it sounds.

Animal behaviours

We often describe animals by their behaviour; where they live, when we see them, what they like to eat, and how they go about acquiring their food, for example.

Describing wildlife in this way can be a valuable way to communicate important information about them, to help find or identify them, or study the common challenges they face.

Marsh frog: BBC Nature Marsh frog or pond life?

Nocturnal animals appear at night, for example. All of them, whether they are bats or badgers, have to be able to move around or navigate in the dark. They develop different senses to help them; either evolving big eyes, ways to use sound to navigate, such as bats using echolocation, or perhaps a super sense of touch, used by moles.

Day living animals are described as diurnal.

Wildlife is often described by the habitat it lives in; pond life, for example.

Or by how it eats; hawks are predators because they hunt other animals. Herbivores such as deer are grazers or browsers.

The heritage and origin of animals and plants can determine how we describe them: invasive species are those that have 'invaded' another habitat, territory or country to which they don't naturally belong.

Scientific names and relationships

As described above, scientists use a specific language when naming species, and that language is governed by a set of rules.

All barn owls in the UK are members of the species Tyto alba. They are the same as barn owls flying all around the world, from South America to Africa and Europe, even if many of these birds may look subtly different.

This system underpins many of our efforts to understand wildlife, its evolution and how it should be conserved.

You decide

There's nothing wrong with describing animals in a personal way, or giving them a generic name, if you are unsure. People might variously call a cockchafer beetle a May bug, mitchamador, billy witch, or spang beetle.

White Hart pub sign A White Hart is a pub and white deer

Occasionally this can lead to confusion. Unless you have a good grasp of mediaeval history, or frequent lots of pubs, you might not know that a White Hart is actually a white deer. Or that an Essex skipper is a type of butterfly that lives far beyond Essex.

But what really matters is that you use the description that works best for you.

If you work in science, you will likely describe wildlife using the formal Linnaean naming system. Other scientists will then understand exactly which species you are describing.

If you live in one part of the country, you'll likely do best using the local, common name for wildlife that people will understand in conversation.

The more you discover and celebrate wildlife, the more you will feel comfortable describing what you see, using the appropriate language.

Tell us how you describe wildlife via BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

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