Nominal Doubt (With Apologies to Australia)

It finally happened. Something that I had been suspecting and joking about for years–someone actually called me out and accused me of making up animal names.

It’s not like I can blame them. It was on a tour where I had already introduced them to a kinkajou, a coati, and a kiskadee. We heard a shrill scream overhead, and I IDed it as a Caracara.

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The bird so nice they named it twice.

Costa Rica has an interesting history when it comes to animal names. I’ve mentioned this before. Most of the fauna unique to the Tropics–the kinkajous, coatis, tapirs, and cavimorph rodents–have no reference in the Temperate zones and thus require their own unique root names. It doesn’t help that most of these names come from South American indigenous languages, where the first English-speaking naturalists IDed them. It also doesn’t help that most local bird names are onomatopoeic–there usually based off the sound the bird makes. This gives you things like caracara, kiskadee, toledo, and chachalaca.

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“As in, Boom, chachalaca?”–every tourist ever.

I hear Australia has a similar problem. Australia, the land of the wallaby, the quokka, the numbat, and the jongowumpas, names so outlandish to English ears that you probably didn’t even catch that I made one of those up.

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And I’m never telling which.

But back to Costa Rica, where some of our animals sound like rejects from Harry Potter. Lizards here have names like basilisk, or -something dragon, just adding to the mythological flair. Or Pokemon. Have you ever seen a student roll their eyes when you pointed out an olingo? Or gotten a blank stare when you excitedly explained that you could hear a Quetzal? Or heard someone actually snort out loud when you mention the high local density of Titi monkeys? I have.

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It’s pronounced “Tee-Tee” monkeys, you comedians.

Look, I get it. Guides are notorious for hating to say they don’t know an answer. And I’m sure we’ve all had the temptation to bullshit or outright lie. But please give them the benefit of the doubt. Names and sounds are relative. Foreigners might very well react the same to creatures in your backyard. In fact, I had to boot up Google to prove to a skeptical Spaniard what a “marmot” was.

And sometimes the names are important. Disbelieve at your own risk. Here, you really do need to watch out for pica-pica vine. In Madagascar, don’t laugh when they warn you about Fossa. And in Australia, beware of the cassowary, the dingo, and the dreaded furbompowhispel. And yes, I made one of those up. Probably.

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Seriously, don’t laugh about the fossa.

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