How to describe animals

Monarch of the Glen: Sir Edwin Landseer Monarch of the Glen: Sir Edwin Landseer's famous 1851 rendition of the British stag

The way we name and describe wildlife has a wider impact beyond natural history.

Animal and plant names and descriptions have become an integral part of our cultural landscape.

Past records of these names can also help us understand more about the diversity and distribution of wildlife today, and through history, while descriptions of wildlife influence much of our culture, from place names to art and folklore.

Place names

Place names are replete with references to flora and fauna.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has collected evidence of the huge number of places names in the UK that make reference to cranes, tall, stately wading water birds.

Common cranes Common cranes now breed at just a handful of UK sites

Once widespread across our countryside, cranes stopped breeding in the UK around the 17th Century. Though lost from memory, they are preserved in our folklore and history.

Hundreds of place names, such as Cranford, Cranbrook and Cranmore, contain the element "cran" that signifies a locality known for cranes.

These names act as signposts to a forgotten heritage.

Accurate records of where wildlife once lived are often missing. So place names can help scientists determine where populations of less well-documented species once fared well, helping to inform where wildlife may be reintroduced.

Take the burbot, a freshwater fish from the cod family, for example. There are no recorded catches of it in the UK since the 1970s. River pollution probably killed it off but scientists hope that the big improvement in river cleanliness in recent years means that successful reintroduction is possible.

Wild boar head The wild boar became a heraldic symbol

This is where place names come in.

In the past, the burbot must have been important enough for people to name places after it.

Cambridge's Downing Street (close to the River Cam) was previously Burbolt Lane. Barbot Hill Road and Barbot Hall in Rotherham are both thought to indicate the presence of the burbot in the River Rother.

With this information it's possible for scientists to establish which rivers successfully provided ecological niches for the fish in the past.

Iconic species such as wolves and beavers have also given their names to places in England. This data has been used to suggest that the former were still widespread in England, but beavers were already in decline, when the Anglo-Saxons named our countryside.

Wildlife was also extensively used in heraldry: the wild boar symbolising courage in battle.

As well as place names, the names of numerous pubs, establishments and brands are based on wildlife, from the Fox and Hound, The Swan and Stags Head pubs to Volkswagen's' car shaped like a Beetle.

The arts

Wildlife plays an important role in our art and literature, beyond the simple naming of towns, roads and buildings.

The poppy has become a symbol of remembrance, especially of those killed in battle, after it grew across the battlefields of World War One.

Poets regularly describe nature, from white-tailed eagles circling the dead on battlefields to whole seasons, evidenced by Robert Burns' poem 'Lament of Mary, Queen of Scots, on the Approach of Spring', which begins: "Now Nature hangs her mantle green, on every blooming tree."

Poppies The poppy is a symbol of rememberance

Numerous great paintings attempt to capture and describe the essence of nature on canvass: there are almost 2000 works of art featuring trees in the BBC Your Paintings collection. Or think of Sir Edwin Landseer's famous 1851 painting Monarch of the Glen.

We use musical words to describe many sounds made by animals; birds, mice, insects and whales produce songs.

While the sounds of animals have also informed classical and popular music; the composer Vivaldi's Four Seasons violin concertos, for example. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony was partly inspired by nature and singing birds.

Modern media are also inspired by wildlife characteristics; such as the online communication tool Twitter, which makes use of short messages called Tweets. The BBC has also launched the Radio 4 programme Tweet of the Day, which broadcasts the song of a new or interesting bird every day, along with a short ornithological story.

Animal verse

The characteristics of animals are also regularly co-opted to give meaning to our own behaviour. George Orwell's widely regarded novel Animal Farm was an allegorical work, using the story of farmyard animals to satire the issue of equality in human society.

Many of us first hear descriptions of wildlife within nursery rhymes, children's stories and folk songs, imagining animal characters; landscapes and habitats.

The nursery rhyme five little ducks, Author Beatrix Potter's character Peter the Rabbit, the 1908 children's novel Wind in the Willows, are all such examples.


There is a long tradition of describing wildlife within legend, folklore and myth.

Folklore was often used as a way to communicate real information about the natural world.

Myths and legends might reflect an inherent truth about our wildlife, past or present, or instead be used as metaphors for our own behaviour.

The Salisbury Hare is an English folk legend originating from the county of Wiltshire. The legend tells of a hare that dances during a full moon, and that anyone who sees the hare is said to have good fortune for the rest of his or her days.

The reclusive Mr Badger from Wind in the Willows The reclusive Mr Badger from Wind in the Willows
Black leopard Have black leopards been sighted in the UK?
"The Boy who Cried Wolf" by Francis Barlow Francis Barlow's illustration of the fable "The Boy who Cried Wolf"
Various images of the Loch Ness monster The Loch Ness Monster is a modern myth

More modern myths include the Beast of Bodmin moor, and other sightings of supposedly large cats on the prowl around the British countryside. Though such cats are often sighted, most turn out to be hoaxes. There are always exceptions however: there is hard evidence that a "big cat" was on the loose in the English countryside at the turn of the last century, for example.

The myth of the Loch Ness monster, one of the most popular wildlife myths worldwide, only gained currency in the 1930s.

There is little to no scientific evidence that such a monster survives, but the myth has provided a useful way to explore and describe the ecology of large freshwater lakes and the kinds of large animals that might inhabit them.

The Etymology of Entomology

  • Listen as zoologist Dr. George McGavin delves into the strange and often bizarre names given to the planet's insects

Fables and stories can also influence how we think about wildlife, and use wildlife as a way to explore how we behave.

Crying wolf, or giving false alarm , has its origins in a fable shared by the ancient Greek story teller Aesop. A number of his fables have animal characters.

A wolf in sheep's clothing is a phrase originated in the Bible which commonly understood to mean a person or thing that appears friendly or harmless but is really hostile.

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