If I started talking about “canines” or “felines,” the average person would know I was talking about dogs and cats. They wouldn’t even have to know that I was referring to scientific Families of Canidae and Felinae. They wouldn’t even have to speak Latin. Describing mammal taxonomy in normal human terms is easy. Different groups are easily parsed based on rough body shape and ecological role, and are directly linked to evolutionary history. For other clades, like birds or even plants, taxonomic names might be more obscure (eg. Falconidae, Poaceae), but can easily be parsed with a nominal generic species name (eg. Raptors, or the Grass Family).
The same cannot be said of one of my favorites: the frogs.
Take this guy, for example: Rana valiante. Kingdom: Animalia. Animals, good. Phylum: Chordata. Vertebrates, OK. Class: Amphibia. Pretty self-explanatory. Order: Anura. Frogs, still with you. Family: Ranidae…and this is where it all goes wrong. See, the Family Ranidae is commonly referred to as the “True Frogs.”
Excuse me? The True Frogs? As opposed to, what, the false frogs? Is there a reason these frogs are so special? Is there any rationale that one frog should be more true than another? Man, that is some serious Amphibian Doublespeak right there.
Here’s another: Bufo haematicus. Family Bufonidae, the “True Toads.” Bufo, please. Who croaked and made you king? What is a “toad” anyway? Just an especially ugly frog? And don’t even get me started on “Treefrogs.”
It goes on. The above species share habitat with species of Leptodactylidae, the “Rain Frogs,” which, I kid you not, were once described to me as “frogs that show a preference for rain.” What, unlike the ones that melt when they get wet?
But it seems to me there is an issue with trying to get too vernacular while also grouping frogs by evolutionary history. It’s not like they give us a lot to work with. Part of the problem is anatomical. There just isn’t much variation in the fundamental body shape of a frog. Describing them by colors only goes so far. And trying to link this to taxonomy, or ecology, is a losing battle. Most frogs hop on two legs, lay eggs in water, hatch as tadpoles, and are carnivorous as adults.
But there are a few with odd physical or behavioral quirks that translate well. Take Centronelidae, the “Glass Frogs,” whose bright green bodies are translucent enough to show their bones and internal organs.
Or “Gladiator Frogs,” whose males battle for mating perches high in trees, sending defeated foes plummeting to the ground in epic matches.
I’m a personal fan of the Craugastoridae, or “Litter Frogs,” who specialize in living in–you guessed it–leaf litter, and can even survive away from water sources by laying large-yolked eggs under cover that then hatch as tiny frogs, skipping the aquatic tadpole stage altogether.
And work is still being done. Currently, evolutionary herpetologists are spending significant portions of their time and sanity to reworking the chaotic and bloated taxonomy of frogs, either due to minute anatomical features or DNA. More recent guidebooks I’ve read have had more applicable common names for non-herpetologists. For example, the “Rain Frogs” lay their eggs in sticky masses secreted by the males, who then kick their legs and whip it into a foamy mass. Because of this, I’ve seen them called “Foam Frogs” in some recent guidebooks, and also because “Semen and Mucous Meringue Frog” probably doesn’t sound as good.
But don’t expect common names to always be convenient. They’re meant–at best–as a kind of shorthand. There’s a reason scientists stick to scientific names, even when they can agree on how to classify them.